Early Life Adversity Changes Brain Structure Via Depression and Anxiety

Edward D. Barker, PhD Developmental Psychopathology Group Department of Psychology, King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry LondonMedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Edward D. Barker, PhD
Developmental Psychopathology Group
Department of Psychology, King’s College London
Institute of Psychiatry London

Medical Research: What is the background for this study?

Dr. Barker: The study looks at how the brain may be affected by experiences that happen early in life and adolescence. It has been known for a long time now that people who experience intense adversity are at increased risk of developing depression and other psychiatric problems. Previous research has also shown that both adversity and depression can affect the development of the brain and lead to altered brain structure. In this study, we wanted to examine how early adversity and depression relate to altered brain structure when you examined each within a specific temporal order (i.e., adversity, then depression/anxiety, then brain structure). This study design allowed us to examine not only the effects of adversity and depression, but also if some of the variation in brain structure associated with depression may also be explained by early adversity.

Other researchers have previously suggested that some of the variation in brain structure observed in depressed patients may relate to early adversity, but no previous study has examined this prospectively like we did, using the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children.

Medical Research: What are the main findings?

Dr. Barker: There are three main findings.

  • First, that experience of adversity within the first 6 years of life is associated with variation in brain structure.
  • Second, that internalizing symptoms (i.e., symptoms of depression and anxiety) are associated with variation in brain structure.
  • Third, that early adversity affects the brain via increased levels of depressive and anxiety symptoms. In other words, early adversity increases later symptoms of depression/anxiety, which, in turn, can associate with variation in cortical structure.

Medical Research: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Dr. Barker: The translational implications of this prospective study suggest the importance of interventions and policies for reducing mental health problems and enhancing at-risk children’s wellbeing. Community agencies (e.g., schools, health care settings) can provide parents with information that not only does adversity negatively impact children’s development but also that a reduction in adversity may have positive effects on children’s development. In addition, efficacious preventive interventions could be made available. Policy makers, in particular, may be helpful promoting early preventive interventions as a means of enhancing outcomes for disadvantaged children.

Medical Research: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Dr. Barker: Future research may want to examine ‘natural experiments’. For example, children (and their families) born into adverse contexts who then move to less adverse context could be compared with children/families born into similar stressful contexts, but do not move. These two groups could be compared in levels of depression/anxiety and brain structure. This type of quasi-experimental design may lend more evidence towards a causative role of early adversity in depression/anxiety and associated brain structure. Our results were correlational.


Sarah K. G. Jensen, Erin W. Dickie, Deborah H. Schwartz, C. John Evans, Iroise Dumontheil, Tomáš Paus, Edward D. Barker. Effect of Early Adversity and Childhood Internalizing Symptoms on Brain Structure in Young MenJAMA Pediatrics, 2015; DOI:1001/jamapediatrics.2015.1486

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Edward D. Barker, PhD (2015). Early Life Adversity Changes Brain Structure Via Depression and Anxiety