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Childhood adversity and cognition in marginally housed young adults

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Thesis type
(Thesis) Ph.D.
Date created
Young people who are marginally housed have elevated rates of numerous adverse outcomes, including cognitive deficit, psychiatric illness, substance use and premature mortality. Childhood adversity is also elevated in marginally housed youth but its relationship to cognition in this population is understudied. Furthermore, there is a paucity of research on potentially crucial moderators of the impact of childhood adversity on cognition, such as developmental timing of the adversity. Using a sample (N = 122) of marginally housed young adults (age 19-29 years), the present study examined associations between childhood adversity (physical abuse, sexual abuse, foster care, residential mobility and adverse home environment) and adulthood cognitive (memory and inhibitory control) and psychosocial functioning. We also examined associations between age at which physical or sexual abuse occurred and cognition and regional brain volumes (hippocampus and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex [DLPFC]) in adulthood. We found significantly elevated rates of childhood physical (48 percent) and sexual abuse (34 percent) and foster care placement (27 percent), as well as high residential mobility (an average of 5 changes in residence throughout childhood) in this sample. While the sample as a whole demonstrated low cognitive and psychosocial functioning compared to normative levels, select adversities were associated with relatively higher cognition and psychosocial functioning. Although participants with these adversities still presented with cognition and psychosocial functioning that was below normative levels, physical abuse was associated with relatively higher memory, sexual abuse with relatively higher psychosocial functioning, and residential mobility with relatively higher inhibitory control and psychosocial functioning. Foster care was associated with lower memory and psychosocial functioning. Physical or sexual abuse that occurred at age 6 was linked with better memory and inhibitory control, while age of abuse was not associated with volumes of the hippocampus or DLPFC. In follow-up analyses, higher residential mobility was associated with fewer neurological soft signs. We tentatively suggest that these results may reflect differential developmental trajectories within the heterogenous population of marginally housed youth. Individuals with higher childhood adversity may represent a more neurodevelopmentally typical group, while those with lower childhood adversity may present with higher rates of neurodevelopmental aberrations which impact cognitive development.
63 pages.
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Thesis advisor: Thornton, Allen
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