Group of teen students
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Early risk factors and developmental pathways to child and adolescent mental health problems

Since the 1990s, our lab has been conducting integrative, interdisciplinary, longitudinal research to identify social, psychological, and biological risk factors for child and adolescent mental health problems and to understand the ways in which risk factors work together over multiple developmental periods. We have been studying children in the Wisconsin Study of Families and Work (WSFW) for the past two decades, extending the original study from the prenatal and infancy periods into childhood and adolescence.

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Research directions

Our recent research efforts have headed in several related directions. First, as the WSFW children entered adolescence, we began focusing on the roles of stress exposure, cortisol functioning, and early child temperamental characteristics in the development of mood and anxiety disorders, which tend to increase in early adolescence. Second, we have expanded our work to study adolescent alcohol, tobacco and other drug use and, more broadly, the linkages between mental and physical health. Third, we have conducted structural and functional brain imaging studies that take advantage of the extensive data collected from the WSFW sample. As part of our activities in the Wisconsin Center for Affective Science (2003-2008; P50-MH069315), approximately 80 WSFW adolescents participated in both structural and functional MRI studies focused especially on the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex. These activities were extended in the Center's successor, a Conte Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Brain, Behavior & Mental Health (2008-2013; P50-MH084051), which included a second set of MRI studies as well as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) with WSFW adolescents to more intensively examine the brain mechanisms linking life histories of stress exposure, biological reactivity, and the development of psychiatric (especially anxiety and mood) disorders in adolescence.

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Recent findings

Taking advantage of the extensive longitudinal dataset we have amassed, our work in recent years has sought to address questions in developmental psychopathology regarding the identification of biological, psychological, and social risk factors, their interactions, and the longitudinal pathways to mental health problems (Boyce et al., 2006; Burk et al., 2008, 2011; Essex et al., 2006, 2010, 2011; Silver et al., 2010). Related work has examined the influence of an array of risk factors on pubertal timing (Ellis & Essex, 2007; Ellis et al., 2011) and on alcohol use in adolescence (Burk et al., 2011).

A paper in a special issue of Development and Psychopathology exemplifies our current efforts. In this study of the allostatic process, we examined the influences of different stress exposures in early life (i.e., infancy and preschool) on patterns of cortisol and mental health symptoms from childhood into early adolescence (i.e., ages 9, 11, 13, and 15). Among other findings, results indicated that the relation between cortisol functioning (basal level and diurnal rhythm) and mental health symptoms varied by early stress exposure. The figure below illustrates one example, comparing cortisol patterns as a function of type of stress exposure (in this case, high maternal depression symptoms versus high family expressed anger) and children's level of mental health symptoms at the time of cortisol assessment. Click here to access the abstract and full paper. Essex, M.J., Shirtcliff, E.A., Burk, L.B., Ruttle, P.L., Klein, M.H., Slattery, M.J., Kalin, N.H., & Armstrong, J.M. (2011). Influence of early life stress on later hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis functioning and its covariation with mental health symptoms: A study of the allostatic process from childhood into adolescence. Development and Psychopathology, 23, 1039-1058.

Allostasis figure

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Current and future plans

Having conducted data collection with the WSFW sample through the end of high school, our current work is focused on extending our earlier findings to examine longitudinal patterns of mental health symptoms, early versus adolescent stress exposures, reactive versus basal cortisol functioning, adolescent substance use, and the influence of socioeconomic status on child and adolescent health. Additional work examines child and adolescent obesity and the relationships among cortisol and pubertal hormones across development. We also are extending our earlier imaging work to use resting state fMRI and DTI to assess functional and structural connectivity in the adolescent brain. Further, as part of a renewed grant from NIMH (R01-MH043454; PI: Richie Davidson), WSFW youth who previously participated in MRI studies at ages 15 and 18 are being recruited for a follow-up imaging study in their early 20s.

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