Attention Bias to Threat in Maltreated Children: Implications for Vulnerability to Stress-Related Psychopathology

Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, United States
American Journal of Psychiatry (Impact Factor: 12.3). 03/2005; 162(2):291-6. DOI: 10.1176/appi.ajp.162.2.291
Source: PubMed


Previous research in adults implicates attention bias in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). To study attention bias in children, the authors used picture-based versions of the visual-probe attention bias task previously used with adults. They tested the hypothesis that attention bias to threatening facial photographs is associated with maltreatment and PTSD.
A visual-probe task that manipulated threat levels was used to test 34 children who had been maltreated and 21 children who had not been maltreated. The visual-probe task involved showing photographs of actors with faces depicting neutral, angry/threatening, or happy expressions for 500 msec each.
Attention bias away from threat was associated with severity of physical abuse and diagnosis of PTSD. This association reflected the tendency for high levels of abuse or PTSD to predict attention avoidance of threatening faces.
Previous studies examined the engagement of specific brain regions associated with attention orientation to angry/threatening faces. The current study used similar methods to document associations between attention bias and maltreatment in children. This sets the stage for studies examining relationships in children among perturbed brain function, psychopathology, attention bias, and maltreatment.

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Available from: Brendan Patrick Bradley
    • "Children growing up in highly threatening environments (e.g., in abusive families) often show a strong attentional bias toward threat (i.e., angry faces) at this stage of processing (Shackman et al., 2007 ). Yet, some studies have found physically abused children to attend away from threat (Pine et al., 2005), and children from normative families to attend toward threat at the early stage of processing (Lindström et al., 2009 ). Such mixed findings suggest that there is high heterogeneity in how children attend toward threat at the early stage of processing, perhaps reflecting developmental differences in the monitoring of and automatic responding to threats (Del Giudice et al., 2013). "
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    ABSTRACT: The family environment shapes children’s social information processing and emotion regulation. Yet, the long-term effects of early family systems have rarely been studied. This study investigated how family system types predict children’s attentional biases toward facial expressions at the age of 10 years. The participants were 79 children from Cohesive, Disengaged, Enmeshed, and Authoritarian family types based on marital and parental relationship trajectories from pregnancy to the age of 12 months. A dot-probe task was used to assess children’s emotional attention biases toward threatening (angry) and affiliative (happy) faces at the early (500 ms) and late (1250 ms) stages of processing. Situational priming was applied to activate children’s sense of danger or safety. Results showed that children from Cohesive families had an early-stage attentional bias toward threat, whereas children from Enmeshed families had a late-stage bias toward threat. Children from Disengaged families had an early-stage attentional bias toward threat, but showed in addition a late-stage bias away from emotional faces (i.e., both angry and happy). Children from Authoritarian families, in turn, showed a late-stage attentional bias toward emotional faces. Situational priming did not moderate the effects of family system types on children’s attentional biases. The findings confirm the influence of early family systems on the attentional biases, suggesting differences in the emotion regulation strategies children have developed to adapt to their family environments.
    No preview · Article · Dec 2015 · International Journal of Behavioral Development
    • "Differences also have been observed among maltreatment subtypes, with neglected children displaying difficulty discriminating between emotions, and physically abused children showing a response bias for angry facial expressions, requiring less perceptual information to recognize angry expressions (Pollak et al., 2000; Pollak & Kistler, 2002; Pollak, Messner, Kistler, & Cohn, 2009; Pollak & Sinha, 2002). Physically abused children show selective attention to threatening stimuli (Pollak & Tolley-Schell, 2003), although severe physical abuse has also been associated with an attentional bias away from threat (Pine et al., 2005). Evidence from event-related potentials also suggests that children with a history of maltreatment process positive and negative facial expressions differently than do nonmaltreated children (Cicchetti & Curtis, 2005; Curtis & Cicchetti, 2011, 2013; Pollak, Cicchetti, Klorman, & Brumaghim, 1997). "
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    ABSTRACT: Childhood maltreatment is a serious individual, familial, and societal threat that compromises healthy development and is associated with lasting alterations to emotion perception, processing, and regulation (Cicchetti & Curtis, 2005; Pollak, Cicchetti, Hornung, & Reed, 2000; Pollak & Tolley-Schell, 2003). Individuals with a history of maltreatment show altered structural and functional brain development in both frontal and limbic structures (Hart & Rubia, 2012). In particular, previous research has identified hyperactive amygdala responsivity associated with childhood maltreatment (e.g., Dannlowski et al., 2012). However, less is known about the impact of maltreatment on the relationship between the amygdala and other brain regions. The present study employed an emotion processing functional magnetic resonance imaging task to examine task-based activation and functional connectivity in adults who experienced maltreatment as children. The sample included adults with a history of substantiated childhood maltreatment ( n = 33) and comparison adults ( n = 38) who were well matched on demographic variables, all of whom have been studied prospectively since childhood. The maltreated group exhibited greater activation than comparison participants in the prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia. In addition, maltreated adults showed increased amygdala connectivity with the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. The results suggest that the intense early stress of childhood maltreatment is associated with lasting alterations to frontolimbic circuitry.
    No preview · Article · Nov 2015 · Development and Psychopathology
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    • "Laboratory research suggests that individuals with high levels of trait anxiety are not only more likely to show elevated levels of stress in their daily lives but also to show differential reactivity following an acute stressor (Hubert and de Jong-Meyer 1992; van Eck et al. 1996). As a result, we hypothesize that highly anxious children may also exhibit more maladaptive cognitive and behavioral responses to stressful stimuli in their communities, including reduced cognitive capacity, avoidance of potentially threatening stimuli, withdrawal, and reduced coping (Evans 2003; Pine et al. 2005). "
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    ABSTRACT: Research has shown robust relationships between community violence and psychopathology, yet relatively little is known about the ways in which community violence may affect cognitive performance and attention. The present study estimates the effects of police-reported community violence on 359 urban children's performance on a computerized neuropsychological task using a quasi-experimental fixed-effects design. Living in close proximity to a recent violent crime predicted faster but marginally less accurate task performance for the full sample, evolutionarily adaptive patterns of "vigilant" attention (i.e., less attention toward positive stimuli, more attention toward negative stimuli) for children reporting low trait anxiety, and potentially maladaptive patterns of "avoidant" attention for highly anxious children. These results suggest that community violence can directly affect children's cognitive performance while also having different (and potentially orthogonal) impacts on attention deployment depending on children's levels of biobehavioral risk. Implications for mental health and sociological research are discussed. © American Sociological Association 2015.
    Full-text · Article · Feb 2015 · Journal of Health and Social Behavior
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