Differential executive functioning in young adulthood as a function of experienced child abuse

Int J Psychophysiol. 2019 Jan:135:126-135. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2018.12.004. Epub 2018 Dec 12.


Introduction: Previous research has shown cognitive dysfunction in adults with a history of child abuse. The purpose of the present study was to measure differences that exist in executive functioning skills between individuals who have been abused as children versus those without the history of childhood abuse.

Methods: The present study recruited 43 students from the University of North Dakota (33 women) between ages 18 and 23 years of age. The participants were administered several prescreening measures, including a measure of physical child abuse, emotional child abuse, and sexual child abuse. Based on responses to these measures, participants were grouped into a no-child-abuse group, a mild-child-abuse group, or a moderate-to-severe child abuse group. All participants were administered measures of executive functioning that included the Wisconsin Card Sorting Task, the Operation Span Task, and the Connors Continuous Performance Task with a simultaneous recording of electroencephalographic activity using a wireless 9 channel EEG system.

Results: There was a statistically significant main effect of child abuse group (no child abuse vs. moderate-to-high child abuse) for the EEG-derived probability of cognitive workload during the OSPAN. Beta bandwidths for individuals in the drug abuse group, which served as a covariate, were also found to be significantly attenuated during the Connors CPT.

Conclusion: Individuals that have been abused as children must use significantly more mental effort to complete executive functioning tasks as compared to their non-abused counterparts. Increased neurological effort could be used to explain poor decision-making skills that are common within the population.

Keywords: Child abuse; Drug abuse; Electroencephalograph; Executive functioning.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Child Abuse / psychology*
  • Child Abuse / trends
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Wisconsin Card Sorting Test*
  • Young Adult