Childhood Adversity and Brain Development

Brief Description:

In this study, we are collaborating with Margaret Sheridan (Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School) to investigate how experiences of stress and adversity in childhood and adolescence influence brain development. In particular, we are interested in how individual experiences shape the development of the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that undergoes substantial developmental changes during adolescence.

Eligibility for Participation:

We are currently recruiting 13-19 year-olds.  Participation involves completing an MRI assessment. As a result, adolescents who have braces, hair extensions, or certain types of metal implants, or who may be pregnant may not be eligible to participate.

Participation Details:

The study involves one 3-hour visit to our EEG laboratory at Boston Children’s Hospital, where we can provide a free parking spot. Following this visit is a second session that involves completing an MRI at the Center for Brain Science in Harvard Square.  Free parking is also provided for this session. Each session is fun, and participants receive rewards, snacks, and time for a break during each of the session. We pay a total of $150 for participation.

Full Description:

The ability to regulate our emotional responses to everyday challenges and perform complex, goal-oriented tasks is critical to living successfully as an adult. Research suggests that these abilities are dependent on the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that has a long developmental trajectory over the course of childhood and into adolescence. Because of this long trajectory we believe that the prefrontal cortex, and the important abilities controlled by the prefrontal cortex, might be significantly impacted by experiences in childhood and adolescence. In particular, we are interested in whether difficult and stressful experiences might impact the development of the prefrontal cortex.  We are therefore examining the relationship between experiences of stress and adversity and the structure and function of the prefrontal cortex in adolescents and determining whether disruptions in prefrontal cortex function are responsible for the onset of mental health problems in adolescence.

In this study, adolescents will come to the lab and individually fill out some surveys that ask questions about the challenges they have faced as children. In addition, we will ask them about events that may have happened to them and their reactions to those events. We will then measure a variety of markers of neural structure and function using EEG and MRI.

By better identifying the biological substrates relating stressful experiences to emotional health during adolescence we aim to better identify how to help children cope with emotional challenges.

This project is funded by the Charles H. Hood Foundation, Child Health Research Award to Dr. McLaughlin.

Research Contact

If your child is interested in participating, please e-mail Sonia Alves at or call 857-218-3234