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A person-centered approach to the assessment of early life stress: Associations with the volume of stress-sensitive brain regions in early adolescence

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 May 2018

Lucy S. King*
Stanford University
Kathryn L. Humphreys
Stanford University
M. Catalina Camacho
University of Pittsburgh
Ian H. Gotlib
Stanford University
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Lucy S. King, Jordan Hall, 450 Serra Mall, Building 420, Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305; E-mail:


Researchers are becoming increasingly interested in linking specific forms of early life stress (ELS) to specific neurobiological markers, including alterations in the morphology of stress-sensitive brain regions. We used a person-centered, multi-informant approach to investigate the associations of specific constellations of ELS with hippocampal and amygdala volume in a community sample of 211 9- to 13-year-old early adolescents. Further, we compared this approach to a cumulative risk model of ELS, in which ELS was quantified by the total number of stressors reported. Using latent class analysis, we identified three classes of ELS (labeled typical/low, family instability, and direct victimization) that were distinguished by experiences of family instability and victimization. Adolescents in the direct victimization class had significantly smaller hippocampal volume than did adolescents in the typical/low class; ELS classes were not significantly associated with amygdala volume. The cumulative risk model of ELS had a poorer fit than did the person-centered model; moreover, cumulative ELS was not significantly associated with hippocampal or amygdala volume. Our results underscore the utility of taking a person-centered approach to identify alterations in stress-sensitive brain regions based on constellations of ELS, and suggest victimization is specifically associated with hippocampal hypotrophy observed in early adolescence.

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We thank Alexandria Price, Holly Pham, Isabella Lazzareschi, Monica Ellwood-Lowe, Sophie Schouboe, and Madelaine Graber for their assistance in collection and management of data; Matthew Sacchet for his assistance with subcortical brain segmentation; and Natalie Colich for helpful conversations. This research was supported by NIH Grants R01-MH101495 (to I.H.G.) and F32-MH107129 (to K.L.H.), the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (NARSAD Young Investigator Award to KLH [23819]), the Klingenstein Third Generation Foundation (Fellowship to K.L.H.), and the National Science Foundation (Graduate Research Fellowship to L.S.K.).


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