Decreased Amygdala Reactivity to Parent Cues Protects Against Anxiety Following Early Adversity: An Examination Across 3 Years

Bridget L. Callaghan, Columbia University, The University of Melbourne
Dylan G. Gee, Yale University
Laurel Gabard-Durnam, Boston Children’s Hospital
Eva H. Telzer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Kathryn L. Humphreys, Vanderbilt University
Bonnie Goff, University of California–Los Angeles
Mor Shapiro, University of California–Los Angeles
Jessica Flannery, University of Oregon
Daniel S. Lumian, University of Denver
Dominic S. Fareri, Adelphi University
Christina Caldera, University of California–Los Angeles
Nim Tottenham, Columbia University



The human brain remains highly plastic for a protracted developmental period. Thus, although early caregiving adversities that alter amygdala development can result in enduring emotion regulation difficulties, these trajectories should respond to subsequent enriched caregiving. Exposure to high-quality parenting can regulate (i.e., decrease) children’s amygdala reactivity, a process that, over the long term, is hypothesized to enhance emotion regulation. We tested the hypothesis that even following adversity, the parent–child relationship would be associated with decreases in amygdala reactivity to parent cues, which would in turn predict lower future anxiety.


Participants were 102 children (6–10 years of age) and adolescents (11–17 years of age), for whom data were collected at one or two time points and who either had experienced institutional care before adoption (n = 45) or had lived always with their biological parents (comparison; n = 57). We examined how amygdala reactivity to visual cues of the parent at time 1 predicted longitudinal change (from time 1 to time 2) in parent-reported child anxiety across 3 years.


At time 1, on average, amygdala reactivity decrements to parent cues were not seen in children who had received institutional care but were seen in children in the comparison group. However, some children who previously experienced institutional care did show decreased amygdala reactivity to parent cues (∼40%), which was associated with greater child-reported feelings of security with their parent. Amygdala decreases at time 1 were followed by steeper anxiety reductions from time 1 to time 2 (i.e., 3 years).


These data provide a neurobiological mechanism by which the parent–child relationship can increase resilience, even in children at significant risk for anxiety symptoms.