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Childhood adversity exposure has been linked to physical and mental health difficulties, such as asthma, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, depression, and suicidality. These health conditions and/or their risk factors emerge throughout childhood and adolescence, and persist across the lifespan. Research over the past two decades has taught us that exposure to traumatic experiences has the potential to alter the way our body responds to stress. When our body experiences stress, there is a cascade of physiological changes that result in the production of cortisol. Exposure to large quantities of cortisol for extended periods of time has serious negative consequences for our brain and our immune system. More recently, researchers have considered whether there are specific periods of development that are more sensitive to trauma and therefore are more impactful to our long-term health.

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.

Reference Article:

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

Discussion questions:

  1. How can knowledge of neurobiological sensitive periods for exposure to trauma and adversity be most helpful for the development and dissemination of effective interventions?
  2. What known clinical and behavioral traits may persist among trauma-exposed youth that are driven by slower physiological recovery from acute stress?


Author biography

Kate Ryan Kuhlman, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral fellow in the UCLA Department of Psychology and the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology. She received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on the health impact of childhood trauma exposure, specifically functioning of the HPA-axis and the immune system that may explain these associations. In her free time, she is also the Founder and Editor of www.ScienceForWomen.org