Childhood maltreatment is associated with increased neural response to ambiguous threatening facial expressions in adulthood: Evidence from the late positive potential

Published in: Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, Volume 18, Issue 1, 143-154

“Childhood maltreatment increases lifetime vulnerability for psychopathology. One proposed mechanism for this association is that early maltreatment increases vigilance for and attention to subtle threat cues, persisting outside of the environment in which maltreatment occurs. To test this possibility, the present study examined neural responses to ambiguous and nonambiguous threatening facial expressions in a sample of 25 adults reporting a history of low-to-moderate levels of abuse in childhood and 46 reporting no or low levels of childhood maltreatment. The measure of neural response used was the late positive potential (LPP), a neural marker of sustained attention to motivationally salient information that is sensitive to subtle variation in emotional content. Participants passively viewed angry–neutral and fearful–neutral face blends and rated emotional intensity for each face. In the maltreated group, as fearful faces increased in emotional intensity, the LPP similarly increased, suggesting increased sensitivity to subtle variation in threatening content. Moreover, the LPP at each level of emotional intensity was not related to current symptoms of anxiety and depression. However, contrary to our hypotheses, adults with a history of abuse did not rate angry or fearful faces as more threatening, nor did they exhibit a larger LPP to angry faces, compared to controls. These findings suggest that childhood maltreatment may be associated with increased sensitivity to ambiguous threatening information in adulthood.”

Written by: Aislinn Sandre, Paige Ethridge, Insub Kim, Anna Weinberg
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