Early-life stress is associated with impairment in cognitive control in adolescence: An fMRI study

Sven C. Mueller, Francoise S. Maheu, Mary Dozier, Elizabeth Peloso, Darcy Mandell, Ellen Leibenluft, Daniel S. Pine, Monique Ernst

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

161 Scopus citations


Early-life stress (ES) has been associated with diverse forms of psychopathology. Some investigators suggest that these associations reflect the effects of stress on the neural circuits that support cognitive control. However, very few prior studies have examined the associations between ES, cognitive control, and underlying neural architecture. The present study compares adolescents with a documented history of ES to typical adolescents on a cognitive control task using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Twelve ES adolescents who were adopted because of early caregiver deprivation (9 females, age. =13 years ± 2.58) and 21 healthy control adolescents without a history of ES (10 females, age. =13 years ± 1.96) who resided with their biological parents performed the change task (Nelson, Vinton et al., 2007) - a variant of the stop task - during fMRI. Behaviourally, ES adolescents took longer to switch from a prepotent response (" go" ) to an alternative response (" change" ) than control adolescents. During correct " change" responses vs. correct " go" responses, this behavioural group difference was accompanied by higher activation in ES subjects than controls. These differences were noted in regions involved in primary sensorimotor processes (pre- and postcentral gyri), conflict monitoring (dorsal anterior cingulate gyrus), inhibitory and response control (inferior prefrontal cortex and striatum), and somatic representations (posterior insula). Furthermore, correct " change" responses vs. incorrect " change" responses recruited the inferior prefrontal cortex (BA 44/46) more strongly in ES subjects than controls. These data suggest impaired cognitive control in youth who experienced ES.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3037-3044
Number of pages8
Issue number10
StatePublished - Aug 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Change task
  • Development
  • Inhibition
  • Maltreatment
  • Stress
  • Task switching

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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