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Previous research suggests that exposure to early life stress (ELS) affects the structural integrity of the uncinate fasciculus (UF), a frontolimbic white matter tract that undergoes protracted development throughout adolescence. Adolescence is an important transitional period characterized by the emergence of internalizing psychopathology such as anxiety, particularly in individuals with high levels of stress sensitivity. We examined the relations among sensitivity to ELS, structural integrity of the UF, and anxiety symptoms in 104 early adolescents. We conducted structured interviews to assess exposure to ELS and obtained subjective and objective ratings of stress severity, from which we derived an index of ELS sensitivity. We also acquired diffusion MRI and conducted deterministic tractography to visualize UF trajectories and to compute measures of structural integrity from three distinct segments of the UF: frontal, insular, temporal. We found that higher sensitivity to ELS predicted both reduced fractional anisotropy in right frontal UF and higher levels of anxiety symptoms. These findings suggest that fibers in frontal UF, which are still developing throughout adolescence, are most vulnerable to the effects of heightened sensitivity to ELS, and that reduced structural integrity of frontal UF may underlie the relation between early stress and subsequent internalizing psychopathology.
© The Author (2017). Published by Oxford University Press.