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Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2011 Mar;214(1):55-70. doi: 10.1007/s00213-010-2009-2. Epub 2010 Sep 24.

Effects of early life stress on cognitive and affective function: an integrated review of human literature.

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Center for Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Research, McLean Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Room 233C, De Marneffe Building, 115 Mill Street, Belmont, MA 02478-9106, USA.



The investigation of putative effects of early life stress (ELS) in humans on later behavior and neurobiology is a fast developing field. While epidemiological and neurobiological studies paint a somber picture of negative outcomes, relatively little attention has been devoted to integrating the breadth of findings concerning possible cognitive and emotional deficits associated with ELS. Emerging findings from longitudinal studies examining developmental trajectories of the brain in healthy samples may provide a new framework to understand mechanisms underlying ELS sequelae.


The goal of this review was twofold. The first was to summarize findings from longitudinal data on normative brain development. The second was to utilize this framework of normative brain development to interpret changes in developmental trajectories associated with deficits in cognitive and affective function following ELS.


Five principles of normative brain development were identified and used to discuss behavioral and neural sequelae of ELS. Early adversity was found to be associated with deficits in a range of cognitive (cognitive performance, memory, and executive functioning) and affective (reward processing, processing of social and affective stimuli, and emotion regulation) functions.


Three general conclusions emerge: (1) higher-order, complex cognitive and affective functions associated with brain regions undergoing protracted postnatal development are particularly vulnerable to the deleterious effects of ELS; (2) the amygdala is particularly sensitive to early ELS; and (3) several deficits, particularly those in the affective domain, appear to persist years after ELS has ceased and may increase risk for later psychopathology.

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