High-stress childhoods blind adults to potential loss

December 4, 2017 by Chris Barncard
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Adults who lived high-stress childhoods have trouble reading the signs that a loss or punishment is looming, leaving themselves in situations that risk avoidable health and financial problems and legal trouble.

According to researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, this difficulty may be biological, stemming from an unhelpful lack of activity in the when a situation should be prompting heightened awareness. And that discovery may help train at-risk young people to be better at avoiding risk.

"It's not that people are overtly deciding to take these negative risks, or do things that might get them in trouble," says Seth Pollak, a UW-Madison psychology professor who has studied kids and for decades. "It may very well be that their brains are not really processing the information that should tell them they are headed to a bad place, that this is not the right step to take."

Pollak and UW-Madison psychiatry Professor Rasmus Birn brought back to the lab more than 50 people—now ages 20 to 23—who were participants in a study Pollak conducted about stress hormones when they were 8 years old. They were drawn equally from that study's least-stressed and most-stressed kids. Those who dealt with chronic high stress as children experienced traumatic events like parents killed by gunfire or substance abuse, multiple foster home placements and severe maltreatment, according to Pollak.

The researchers put the adults through a series of tasks—while in and out of brain-scanning functional magnetic resonance imagers (fMRI)—designed to stimulate the brain regions that weigh gain and loss, risk and reward.

The high group was less attentive to potential loss than the low stress group, and more piqued by resulting losses. The results were published today (Dec. 4, 2017) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Among the most striking outcomes, Birn says, was watching the high-stress group work through a gambling scenario in which a token is hidden behind one of 10 squares. Some of the squares are colored red, others blue. The object is to choose the color of the square covering the token.

"Most people if you see nine red squares, one blue square—and the token is randomly placed—you're going to guess red," he says. "And yet, in a lot of these individuals who experienced high childhood stress we saw, they're betting on the one instead of the nine. And they're betting against the odds again and again."

And they spent longer doing it, according to Pollak, agonizing over the decision before making a poor decision again.

"It was our observation not that they couldn't do math, but that they weren't really attending to the right things," he says. "We didn't see people improving over time. You might say, 'Well, they don't get how it works.' But the people with high-stress childhoods, even after many trials, they weren't using negative feedback to change their behavior and improve."

In brain scans from the people who lived with high stress as children, Birn and Pollak could see a surprisingly low amount of activity in the brain region expected to light up when confronted by a potential loss.

"And then, when they would lose, we'd see more activity than expected—an overreaction—in the part of the brain that responds to reward," Pollak says, "which makes sense. If you didn't catch the cue that you were likely to lose, you're probably going to be pretty shocked when you don't win."

The high-stress childhood group also reported undertaking more risky behaviors—smoking, not wearing a seatbelt in a car or texting while driving—on a regular basis than their low-stress counterparts.

Interestingly, it was just the childhood stress level—not the level of stress in the participants' adult lives—that was predictive of their ability to identify potential loss or avoid risky behavior.

The researchers' knowledge of their subjects' childhood stress is unique. Typically, assessing the childhood of a group of adults requires relying on their recollections and spotty records.

"But we knew these people when they were kids," says Pollak. "We have a clinical assessment of their stress levels in childhood that was done at that time of their lives, while their parents sat in the waiting room. That's powerful data."

The results are powerful, too, and have already drawn interest from child welfare authorities and family court judges often in the position of trying to change behavior by threatening or applying punishment.

"So many of our behavioral interventions are predicated on the idea that people will understand there's a sign they're about to be punished," Pollak says. "Maybe we need to rethink some of those things."

And maybe people can be taught to spot potential loss and risk. Understanding the brain mechanisms that contribute to repeated poor judgment could illuminate ways to prevent it.

"What are they paying attention to? What associations from past experience are they able to remember and connect? Can we help them make better observations and predictions?" Pollak says. "Framing behavioral problems as a learning problem opens up new doors of what we can do to help people."

Next, the researchers plan to expand the scope of their brain scans and analyses.

"Now that we have this finding, we can use it to guide us to look at specific networks in the brain that are active and functionally connected," Birn says. "We may find that childhood stress reshapes the way communication happens across the brain."

Explore further: Harmful effects of stress on the brain and promising approaches for relief

More information: Rasmus M. Birn el al., "Early childhood stress exposure, reward pathways, and adult decision making," PNAS (2017). www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1708791114

Related Stories

Harmful effects of stress on the brain and promising approaches for relief

November 13, 2017
Stress can have numerous harmful effects on the mind and body, both immediately and over long periods of time. New research reveals mechanisms by which stress exacts its toll throughout the body, from the brain to the male ...

Early life stress can leave lasting impacts on the brain

June 27, 2014
For children, stress can go a long way. A little bit provides a platform for learning, adapting and coping. But a lot of it—chronic, toxic stress like poverty, neglect and physical abuse—can have lasting negative impacts.

Hormones may usher abused girls into early adulthood

July 22, 2013
During the sort of tense situation that makes palms sweat and voices quaver, children and young adults are typically awash in cortisol, a stress hormone that sounds an alarm and prepares the body for fight-or-flight responses ...

Early childhood stress affects brain's response to rewards

October 19, 2015
A Duke University-led study has pinpointed how early childhood stress affects the adult brain's response to rewards. Their findings suggest a possible pathway by which childhood stress may increase risk of depression and ...

Brain activity may be predictor of stress-related cardiovascular risk

August 23, 2017
The brain may have a distinctive activity pattern during stressful events that predicts bodily reactions, such as rises in blood pressure that increase risk for cardiovascular disease, according to new proof-of-concept research ...

Recommended for you

Encouraging risk-taking in children may reduce the prevalence of childhood anxiety

December 13, 2017
A new international study suggests that parents who employ challenging parent behavioural (CPB) methods – active physical and verbal behaviours that encourage children to push their limits – are likely protecting their ...

Anti-stress compound reduces obesity and diabetes

December 13, 2017
For the first time, scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich could prove that a stress protein found in muscle has a diabetes promoting effect. This finding could pave the way to a completely new treatment ...

Researchers link epigenetic aging to bipolar disorder

December 12, 2017
Bipolar disorder may involve accelerated epigenetic aging, which could explain why persons with the disorder are more likely to have - and die from - age-related diseases, according to researchers from The University of Texas ...

Researchers find common psychological traits in group of Italians aged 90 to 101

December 12, 2017
In remote Italian villages nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and mountains lives a group of several hundred citizens over the age of 90. Researchers at the University of Rome La Sapienza and University of California San ...

Twitter can reveal our shared mood

December 11, 2017
In the largest study of its kind, researchers from the University of Bristol have analysed mood indicators in text from 800 million anonymous messages posted on Twitter. These tweets were found to reflect strong patterns ...

New therapy can help schizophrenia sufferers re-engage socially

December 11, 2017
A new therapy aimed at helping young people suffering from schizophrenia to reconnect and engage with the world around them has had promising results, according to a new University of Sussex-led study.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.