Exposure to Violence as an Environmental Pathway Linking Low Socioeconomic Status with Altered Neural Processing of Threat and Adolescent Psychopathology

David G. Weissman, Harvard University
Maya L. Rosen, Harvard University
Natalie L. Colich, Harvard University
Kelly A. Sambrook, Harvard University
Liliana J. Lengua, University of Washington
Margaret A. Sheridan, The University of North Carolina System
Katie A. McLaughlin, Harvard University

Peer reviewed accepted manuscript.


Low childhood socioeconomic status (SES) is associated with increased risk for psychopathology, in part because of heightened exposure to environmental adversity. Adverse experiences can be characterized along dimensions, including threat and deprivation, that contribute to psychopathology via distinct mechanisms. The current study investigated a neural mechanism through which threat and deprivation may contribute to socioeconomic disparities in psychopathology. Participants were 177 youths (83 girls) aged 10–13 years recruited from a cohort followed since the age of 3 years. SES was assessed using the income-to-needs ratio at the age of 3 years. At the age of 10–13 years, retrospective and current exposure to adverse experiences and symptoms of psychopathology were assessed. At this same time point, participants also com-pleted a face processing task (passive viewing of fearful and neutral faces) during an fMRI scan. Lower childhood SES was associated with greater exposure to threat and deprivation experiences. Both threat and deprivation were associated with higher depression symptoms, whereas threat experiences were uniquely linked to posttraumatic stress disorder symp-toms. Greater exposure to threat, but not deprivation, was associated with higher activation in dorsomedial pFC to fearful compared with neutral faces. The dorsomedial pFC is a hub of the default mode network thought to be involved in internally directed attention and cognition. Experiences of threat, but not deprivation, are associated with greater engagement of this region in response to threat cues. Threat-related adversity contributes to socioeconomic disparities in adolescent psychopathology through distinct mechanisms from deprivation.