Early Adversity and Critical Periods: Neurodevelopmental Consequences of Violating the Expectable Environment

Trends Neurosci. 2020 Mar;43(3):133-143. doi: 10.1016/j.tins.2020.01.002. Epub 2020 Feb 12.


It is now widely recognized that children exposed to adverse life events in the first years of life are at increased risk for a variety of neural, behavioral, and psychological sequelae. As we discuss in this paper, adverse events represent a violation of the expectable environment. If such violations occur during a critical period of brain development, the detrimental effects of early adversity are likely to be long lasting. Here we discuss the various ways adversity becomes neurobiologically embedded, and how the timing of such adversity plays an important role in determining outcomes. We conclude our paper by offering recommendations for how to elucidate the neural mechanisms responsible for the behavioral sequelae and how best to model the effects of early adversity.

Keywords: adverse childhood experiences; brain development; critical periods; developmental programming; early adversity; neurobiological embedding.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural