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Int J Psychophysiol. 2010 Mar;75(3):277-86. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2009.12.010. Epub 2010 Jan 4.

Adverse experiences in childhood influence brain responses to emotional stimuli in adult psychiatric patients.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, University of Konstanz, Germany.


Previous results suggest that early life stress (ELS) may be related to altered cortical responses to emotional stimuli. In a previous study, we found suppressed cortical responses to emotional pictures in psychiatric patients with high-ELS. The present study explored the stability of this effect across time and stimulation conditions. In addition, the relationship between ELS and current life stress was examined, and we probed whether this current life stress was related to the cortical responses. Fifteen patients with high, 16 patients with low-ELS and 15 psychiatrically healthy subjects with low-ELS participated in two sessions 8 months apart. Subjects monitored a rapid serial presentation of pleasant, neutral and unpleasant pictures during magnetoencephalographic recording. In both sessions, estimated neural activity in occipital-parietal-temporal regions between 70 and 250 ms after picture onset was smaller in patients, particularly in those with high-ELS, compared to healthy subjects. Modulation of activity by arousing (pleasant and unpleasant) compared to neutral stimuli around 200 ms post-stimulus did not differ between groups, whereas around 300 ms, patients did not show the pronounced cortical response to pleasant stimuli exhibited by healthy subjects. Results suggest that ELS and psychiatric disorder (1) diminish early perceptual processing (<200 ms) of emotional stimuli without substantially affecting activity modulation by stimulus arousal value, (2) diminish later attention allocation processes (>300 ms), and (3) are related to more recent life stress. High intraindividual correlations of activity patterns between sessions suggest lasting effects of ELS on processing modes.

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