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Socioeconomic Disparities in Chronic Physiologic Stress Are Associated With Brain Structure in Children

      Abstract

      Background

      Socioeconomic factors have been consistently linked with the structure of children’s hippocampus and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Chronic stress—as indexed by hair cortisol concentration—may represent an important mechanism underlying these associations. Here, we examined associations between hair cortisol and children’s hippocampal and ACC structure, including across hippocampal subfields, and whether hair cortisol mediated associations between socioeconomic background (family income-to-needs ratio, parental education) and the structure of these brain regions.

      Methods

      Participants were 5- to 9-year-old children (N = 94; 61% female) from socioeconomically diverse families. Parents and children provided hair samples that were assayed for cortisol. High-resolution, T1-weighted magnetic resonance imaging scans were acquired, and FreeSurfer 6.0 was used to compute hippocampal volume and rostral and caudal ACC thickness and surface area (n = 37 with both child hair cortisol and magnetic resonance imaging data; n = 41 with both parent hair cortisol and magnetic resonance imaging data).

      Results

      Higher hair cortisol concentration was significantly associated with smaller CA3 and dentate gyrus hippocampal subfield volumes but not with CA1 or subiculum volume. Higher hair cortisol was also associated with greater caudal ACC thickness. Hair cortisol significantly mediated associations between parental education level and CA3 and dentate gyrus volumes; lower parental education level was associated with higher hair cortisol, which in turn was associated with smaller volume in these subfields.

      Conclusions

      These findings point to chronic physiologic stress as a potential mechanism through which lower parental education level leads to reduced hippocampal volume. Hair cortisol concentration may be an informative biomarker leading to more effective prevention and intervention strategies aimed at childhood socioeconomic disadvantage.

      Keywords

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      • Biological Psychiatry and Socioeconomic Status
        Biological PsychiatryVol. 86Issue 12
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          The basic science underlying biological psychiatry came first from animal models. For example, rodent studies established the pathways through which early-life experience and stress impact brain systems involved in anxiety and depression (1). With the advent of modern neuroimaging it became possible to study these systems as they function in healthy humans and in those with psychiatric disorders (2).
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