UNLABELLED - Early institutional care can be profoundly stressful for the human infant, and, as such, can lead to significant alterations in brain development. In animal models, similar variants of early adversity have been shown to modify amygdala-hippocampal-prefrontal cortex development and associated aversive learning. The current study examined this rearing aberration in human development. Eighty-nine children and adolescents who were either previously institutionalized (PI youth; N = 46; 33 females and 13 males; age range, 7-16 years) or were raised by their biological parents from birth (N = 43; 22 females and 21 males; age range, 7-16 years) completed an aversive-learning paradigm while undergoing functional neuroimaging, wherein visual cues were paired with either an aversive sound (CS+) or no sound (CS-). For the PI youth, better aversive learning was associated with higher concurrent trait anxiety. Both groups showed robust learning and amygdala activation for CS+ versus CS- trials. However, PI youth also exhibited broader recruitment of several regions and increased hippocampal connectivity with prefrontal cortex. Stronger connectivity between the hippocampus and ventromedial PFC predicted significant improvements in future anxiety (measured 2 years later), and this was particularly true within the PI group. These results suggest that for humans as well as for other species, early adversity alters the neurobiology of aversive learning by engaging a broader prefrontal-subcortical circuit than same-aged peers. These differences are interpreted as ontogenetic adaptations and potential sources of resilience.
SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT - Prior institutionalization is a significant form of early adversity. While nonhuman animal research suggests that early adversity alters aversive learning and associated neurocircuitry, no prior work has examined this in humans. Here, we show that youth who experienced prior institutionalization, but not comparison youth, recruit the hippocampus during aversive learning. Among youth who experienced prior institutionalization, individual differences in aversive learning were associated with worse current anxiety. However, connectivity between the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex prospectively predicted significant improvements in anxiety 2 years following scanning for previously institutionalized youth. Among youth who experienced prior institutionalization, age-atypical engagement of a distributed set of brain regions during aversive learning may serve a protective function.
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