Early life stress, telomere attrition, and child prefrontal cortex functioning

Early life stress (ELS) increases risk for maladaptive socioemotional, cognitive, and behavioral functioning andmental and physical health problems through adulthood. Methods for identifying children most vulnerable topoor outcomes and for applying effective prevention strategies are lacking. There is a considerable publichealth need to develop efficient tools for identifying at-risk individuals and to elucidate mechanisms responsiblefor adverse ELS effects so that appropriate prevention and treatment strategies may be designed. Recent datasuggest that telomere length (TL) may be a promising biomarker for identifying individuals at risk for ELSinducedmaladaptive outcomes. More rapid TL attrition, an indicator of cellular aging, has been linked to bothstress exposures and poor health outcomes. Longitudinal, prospective research is needed to determine theutility of TL in predicting developmental outcomes in childhood. Moreover, related mechanisms may beresponsible for links between ELS and TL and between ELS and poor health outcomes. Identifying thesemechanisms may lead to novel intervention strategies. This study will test associations among repeatedmeasures of ELS, TL, stress reactivity (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis [HPAA] and autonomic nervoussystem [ANS] functioning), oxidative stress, and prefrontal cortex (PFC) functioning in early life. PFCfunctioning was chosen as the main outcome due to its involvement in a range of socioemotional, cognitive,behavioral, and mental health outcomes throughout life. The study aims will be accomplished by following anestablished, well-characterized pregnancy cohort (N=250), the Programming of Intergenerational StressMechanisms (PRISM) project (R01HL095606), through age 5 years. The findings may be translated intostrategies to identify and treat at-risk children to prevent a range of maladaptive outcomes across the lifespan.