Background: Early-life experiences have profound effects on functioning in adulthood. Altered cortical development may be one mechanism through which early-life experiences, including poverty and psychopathology symptoms, affect outcomes. However, there is little prospective research beginning early in development that combines clinician-rated psychopathology symptoms and multiwave magnetic resonance imaging to examine when these relationships emerge. Methods: Children from the Preschool Depression Study who completed diagnostic interviews at three different developmental stages (preschool, school age, early adolescent) and up to three magnetic resonance imaging scans beginning in middle childhood participated in this study (N = 138). Multilevel models were used to calculate intercepts and slopes of cortical thickness within a priori cortical regions of interest. Linear regressions probed how early-life poverty and psychopathology (depression, anxiety, and externalizing symptoms at separate developmental periods) related to intercept/slope. Results: Collectively, experiences during the preschool period predicted reduced cortical thickness, via either reduced intercept or accelerated thinning (slope). Early-life poverty predicted intercepts within sensory and sensory-motor integration regions. Beyond poverty, preschool anxiety symptoms predicted intercepts within the insula, subgenual cingulate, and inferior parietal cortex. Preschool externalizing symptoms predicted accelerated thinning within prefrontal and parietal cortices. Depression and anxiety/externalizing symptoms at later ages were not significant predictors. Conclusions: Early childhood is a critical period of risk; experiences at this developmental stage specifically have the potential for prolonged influence on brain development. Negative early experiences collectively predicted reduced cortical thickness, but the specific neural systems affected aligned with those typically implicated in these individual disorders/experiences.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)397-405
Number of pages9
JournalBiological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2022


  • Adolescent
  • Anxiety
  • Cortical thickness
  • Development
  • Externalizing
  • Poverty
  • Preschool


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