Association Between Initial Age of Exposure to Childhood Abuse and Cognitive Control: Preliminary Evidence

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College of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences, Psychology


Cognitive control, which relies on the protracted development of frontal‐parietal regions into adolescence, is a brain process that may be particularly vulnerable to the impact of childhood abuse. In this study, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine associations between the age of onset of childhood abuse and alterations to the neural mechanisms supporting cognitive control in early adulthood, which have not been previously examined. During fMRI scanning, participants completed hybrid block/event‐related versions of a classic color‐word Stroop task as well as emotional Stroop tasks (threat and positive words). Participants were young adult women (N = 15; age range: 23–30 years) who had a history of childhood physical or sexual abuse that began prior to 13 years of age. Results indicated that earlier age of onset of childhood abuse was robustly associated with increased transient (i.e., event‐related) recruitment of medial cognitive control regions in the classic color‐word paradigm as well as with less suppression of medial frontal regions that are part of the default mode network, βs = −.16 to −.87. In comparison, increased activation in dorsolateral prefrontal regions was associated with earlier age of abuse onset under conditions of sustained (i.e., blocked) cognitive control in the emotional Stroop task for blocks of positive distracting words versus fixation, βs = −.50 to −.60. These results provide preliminary evidence that earlier age of exposure to childhood abuse impacts the functional activation of neural systems involved in cognitive control in adulthood.

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