A Troubled Childhood May Lead to Imbalances in How the Brain Processes Risk and Reward

A new study published in the journal Psychological and cognitive sciences explores the impact of negative childhood experiences, that is, extreme stressors that occur between the ages of 0 and 18, on brain development. According to the study, people who have had negative childhood experiences are more likely to have certain cognitive deficits in adulthood, particularly in the area of ​​decision-making.

Alexander Lloyd, a researcher at the University of London in England, divides negative childhood experiences into three main categories:

  1. Threatening events, which include physical abuse, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse
  2. Neglect, including physical and emotional neglect
  3. Family adversity, which includes parental divorce, parental substance abuse, mental illness within the household, and/or having a parent incarcerated

“There has been a great deal of research on the links between negative childhood experiences and brain development,” says Lloyd. “However, less research has examined the impact of these experiences on how we make decisions and process rewards.”

To study this relationship, Lloyd and his team used an experimental task called “patch finding,” in which a person plays a sort of farming video game in which they have to choose between sticking to a known patch with rewards. that decrease over time or explore a new patch with unknown rewards.

“In our task, individuals had to pick apples from trees,” Lloyd explains. “The longer they stayed with their current tree, the fewer apples there would be to collect. Alternatively, they could leave to go to a new tree that had a new bunch of apples. Through this task, we were able to calculate the weight that individuals place on recent rewards comments versus more historical comments. »

The results demonstrated two key things:

  1. Negative childhood experiences were linked to less task exploration, implying that people who had negative childhood experiences were less likely to take advantage of the full range of rewards available in their environment.
  2. People who had been exposed to negative childhood experiences showed less exploration overall, a sign that they underestimated the reward feedback they received in-game.

“We believe our findings may be related to the development of brain regions that are responsible for processing rewards, as previous research has shown that people who have negative childhood experiences have less neural activation in response. to the rewards compared to people without those experiences,” says Lloyd.

For clinicians and people helping people who have had negative childhood experiences, Lloyd has the following advice:

  1. Because people who have had negative childhood experiences are less likely to explore new opportunities, it might be helpful for professionals working with people who have had negative childhood experiences to understand that experiences adversity may be associated with a reluctance to try new things, which may make some interventions more difficult for people with these experiences
  2. People with negative childhood experiences also tend to undervalue feedback about rewards. Thus, encouraging people with negative childhood experiences to recognize positive reward feedback can also be helpful in supporting someone who has had experiences of adversity.

The authors hope that their findings will contribute to a better understanding of the negative impacts associated with negative childhood experiences and can inform future studies aimed at supporting those who have experienced adversity.

“Ultimately, I would like to see future research develop interventions to reduce the impacts of adversity on mental health by identifying specific features of cognition that are impacted by these experiences,” Lloyd concludes.

A full interview with Alexander Lloyd discussing his new research on negative childhood experiences can be found here: How painful childhood experiences impact the way we see the world today

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