Brains develop in the context of experience. Social experiences may be particularly relevant for developing neural circuits related to the experience of feeling or emotion. Factors such as negative life events and the quality of relationships may be especially influential.
Adolescence is a key time to investigate how early social experiences contribute to brain development because it’s a period of dramatic changes in brain function, brain structure, and social context, and it’s when many psychiatric disorders first appear. But few studies have addressed this important area because of the need for longitudinal data to investigate long-term associations between early social experiences and later brain development.
The Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) hosted a symposium during its Biennial Meeting to explore these issues. Researchers presented work based on four large, longitudinal studies of high-risk adolescents from varied socioeconomic backgrounds and nationalities. Among the questions that weree addressed:
- What early social experiences – including victimization by peers, warmth of caregivers, negative life events, and emotional abuse – affect brain development?
- What can we learn from functional neuroimaging, a technology that measures different aspects of brain function, conducted while teens watch videos, interact with peers, and experience rewards, such as winning money?
- How do early social experiences affect the functioning in adolescence of different brain regions, including the amygdala, orbitofrontal cortex, striatum, and medial prefrontal cortex?