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Girls’ Challenging Social Experiences in Early Adolescence Predict Neural Response to Rewards and Depressive Symptoms Casement MD, Guyer AE, Hipwell AE, McAloon RL, Hoffmann AM, Keenan KE, and Forbes EE

Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 8:18-27, 2014

Developmental models of psychopathology posit that exposure to social stressors may confer risk for depression in adolescent girls by disrupting neural reward circuitry. Investigators in the University of Pittsburgh Department of Psychiatry’s child and adolescent research program led a study to test this hypothesis by examining the relationship between early adolescent social stressors and later neural reward processing and depressive symptoms. 

Participants were 120 girls from an ongoing longitudinal study of precursors to depression across adolescent development. Low parental warmth, peer victimization, and depressive symptoms were assessed when the girls were 11 and 12 years old, and participants completed a monetary reward guessing fMRI task and assessment of depressive symptoms at age 16. Results indicate that low parental warmth was associated with increased response to potential rewards in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), striatum, and amygdala, whereas peer victimization was associated with decreased response to potential rewards in the mPFC. The researchers also found that concurrent depressive symptoms were associated with increased reward anticipation response in mPFC and striatal regions that were also associated with early adolescent psychosocial stressors, with mPFC and striatal response mediating the association between social stressors and depressive symptoms. These findings are consistent with developmental models that emphasize the adverse impact of early psychosocial stressors on neural reward processing and risk for depression in adolescence.

The results of the present study indicate that social stressors experienced by girls in early adolescence are associated with neural response to anticipated rewards at age 16.   Additionally, the findings suggest that in early adolescence, low parental warmth may have a greater influence than peer victimization on later adolescent neural response to reward, and that different types of social stressors may influence reward circuitry in different ways.  Girls who experience low parental warmth at ages 11 and 12 may have experienced similar parenting behaviors at multiple time points in development, with cumulative influence on their brain development. Peer groups, in contrast, tend to shift frequently during adolescence. Therefore, the experience of social exclusion or aggression may be more normative, inconsistent, and time-limited, with less robust influence than parental warmth on adolescent brain function.  This is one of the first studies to use longitudinal data on early adolescent social stressors to predict brain reward processing and depressive symptoms later in adolescence, and it is the first study of social stress and reward processing in an all-female sample.

Contributors:
Melynda D. Casement, PhD, Alison E. Hipwell, PhD, Rose L. McAloon, BS, Amy M. Hoffmann, BA, Erika E. Forbes, PhD (Departments of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Pediatrics, University of Pittsburgh)

Amanda E. Guyer, PhD (Department of Human Ecology and Center for Mind and Brain, University of California, Davis)

Kathryn E. Keenan, PhD (Department of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience, University of Chicago)

This article appeared in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience.  Click here to read the abstract.