May 29, 2019
2 min read

Environmental adversity linked to earlier puberty, brain maturation

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Low socioeconomic status and the experience of traumatic stressful events seemed to be linked with brain structure and function parameters as well as behavior, according to study findings published in JAMA Psychiatry.

Both of these environmental factors were also linked to accelerated puberty and brain maturation, findings revealed.

“Associations of environmental stress with psychopathology, cognition and brain structure and function are well described. However, studies typically assess low socioeconomic status (L-SES) or traumatic stressful events (TSEs) separately,” Raquel E. Gur, MD, PhD, from the department of psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, and colleagues wrote. “These factors are often correlated, but may show individual differences, as suggested by evidence on deprivation and threat.”

Using data from a community-based study in Philadelphia, researchers assessed the psychopathology, neurocognition and neuroimaging parameters in brain maturation of 9,498 racially and economically diverse youth aged 8 to 21 years to determine their link with low socioeconomic status and traumatic stressful events. Specifically, they examined:

  • clinical domains — including psychopathology, via structured interview based on the Schedule for Affective Disorders and Schizophrenia for School-Age Children; and puberty, via the Tanner scale;
  • neurocognition domains via the Penn Computerized Neurocognitive Battery; and
  • multimodal MRI parameters of brain structure and function.

The results showed that low socioeconomic status and traumatic stressful events were linked to greater psychiatric symptom severity for anxiety/depression, fear, externalizing behavior and psychosis. Traumatic stressful events had large effect sizes, with the highest in females for anxiety/depression (1.228 SD; 95% CI, 1.156-1.3) and in males for psychosis (1.099 SD; 95% CI, 1.032-1.166), while low socioeconomic status had small effect sizes, with the highest for eternizing behavior (0.306 SD; 95% CI, 0.269-0.342). The environmental factors were linked to early puberty in the study.

Gur and colleagues also reported that low socioeconomic status had moderate effect sizes on poorer performance — with the greatest for complex cognition (–0.5 SD; 95% CI,0.536 to 0.464) — but trauma was tied to slightly better memory (0.129 SD; 95% CI, 0.084-0.174) and worsened complex reasoning (–0.109 SD; 95% CI, 0.154 to 0.064).

In addition, these two environmental factors were linked to abnormalities in brain structure and function, such as lower volume; however, low socioeconomic status alone was associated with lower gray matter density while traumatic stressful events were associated with higher gray matter density. The researchers found that both were linked to lower regional cerebral blood flow and coherence as well as to accelerated brain maturation.

“The results underscore the marked and pervasive associations of adverse SES and TSEs with symptoms, cognition, and brain structure and function and highlight the need to identify, ameliorate, and mitigate exposome conditions contributing to these associations,” Gur and colleagues wrote. – by Savannah Demko

Disclosure: Gur reports no relevant financial disclosures. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.