In a recent article in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, Dr. Kate Ryan Kuhlman and colleagues in Nestor Lopez-Duran’s laboratory at the University of Michigan conducted a study looking at the way 97 adolescents (ages 9-16) responded to stress in the laboratory, and whether responses to the stressor were different based on when the adolescent was first exposed to trauma. These traumatic experiences were assessed using the Early Trauma Inventory, reported by their parents, and included events that constitute non-intentional traumatic events, sexual, physical, and emotional abuse.
Adolescents in the study who were exposed to trauma before they turned one had a significantly different profile of response to the laboratory stressor. Specifically, adolescents exposed to trauma during their first year of life showed a slower recovery from the acute stressor than their peers who were exposed to the same number of stressors beginning later in childhood.
Several studies have shown that timing of trauma exposure during childhood is linked to distinct alterations in the brain as well as clusters of clinical symptoms. This preliminary finding suggests that exposure to traumatic experiences during infancy may disrupt the physiological capacity to “shut off” the stress response. Thus, the evidence that increased attention to trauma exposure timing is necessary to consider within a developmental framework is growing, and may have profound health implications. Until recently, there were few measures available to reliably gather information regarding the timing of traumatic experiences during youth. Just this year, the Maltreatment and Abuse Chronology of Exposure (MACE; Teicher & Parriger, 2015) was published, and we are excited to use in future studies. More research is needed to identify the cognitive and behavioral symptoms that are associated with delayed recovery from acute stress, how long this pattern of responding lasts, and whether psychosocial and pharmacological interventions can help.
Kuhlman, K. R., Vargas, I., Geiss, E. G., & Lopez-Duran, N. L. (2015). Age of Trauma Onset and HPA Axis Dysregulation Among Trauma-Exposed Youth. Journal of Traumatic Stress. doi: 10.1002/jts.22054