Research Article: Childhood adversity, mental health, and oxidative stress: A pilot study

Date Published: April 26, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Sarah R. Horn, Leslie D. Leve, Pat Levitt, Philip A. Fisher, Soraya Seedat.


Childhood adversity is a potent risk factor for mental health conditions via disruptions to stress response systems. Dysregulations in oxidative stress systems have been associated with both childhood adversity and several psychological disorders (e.g., major depressive disorder) in adult populations. However, few studies have examined associations between childhood adversity, oxidative stress, and mental health in pediatric populations. Childhood adversity (Adverse Childhood Events [ACE]), oxidative stress [F2t-isoprostanes (IsoPs)], and mental health pathology were assessed in 50 adolescent females recruited primarily through the Department of Youth Services. Standard ordinary least squares regression models were run co-varying for age, race/ethnicity, adolescent nicotine use, study condition, and parent history of ACEs. Adolescents who reported experiencing four or more ACEs had significantly elevated IsoP levels. Further, internalizing symptom scores across diagnoses were significantly associated with elevated IsoPs, whereas no externalizing symptoms scores, except Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, were related to altered oxidative stress. Results indicate that IsoPs may be a global marker of childhood adversity and mental health symptomatology, particularly within internalizing symptom domains. A limitation is that body mass index was not collected for this sample. Future studies are needed to replicate and extend these findings in larger, more diverse samples.

Partial Text

Childhood adversity encompasses a range of exposures across infancy through adolescence, such as parental separation or divorce, abuse and neglect, parental substance use problems, family psychiatric illnesses, parental incarceration, and witnessing intimate partner violence. Notably, childhood adversity has been linked to a range of maladaptive outcomes spanning across physical and mental health domains [1] and is a strong predictor of all classes of psychological disorders [2], even after accounting for poor health behaviors [3]. Further, high levels of early life stress and childhood adversity also place individuals at elevated risk of developing physical ailments, such as cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and diabetes mellitus [1, 4, 5]. Mounting evidence suggests that early adversity contributes to maladaptive stress response systems, which in turn, underlie the development of deleterious mental and physical health trajectories throughout the lifespan [1, 6, 7].

This study provides preliminary evidence for significant associations between childhood adversity, mental health pathology, and an elevated biomarker measure, F2-IsoPs, that may indicate oxidative stress in a female adolescent sample. Thus, the results are the first to demonstrate that exposure to four or more ACEs is linked to potential dysregulation of systemic homeostasis. Further, elevated F2-IsoPs were also associated with emerging mental health symptomatology, highlighting that oxidative stress may occur even in subclinical presentations and adolescent expression of psychiatric illness. While it was not a primary aim of this study, we also confirmed that ACE exposure is associated with adolescent internalizing and externalizing problems, a result observed in several prior studies [66–68].

Our results, obtained in a pilot study, provide initial support that there are potentially important relations between childhood adversity, oxidative stress, and mental health symptom development. These relationships have been explored more fully in adult samples; the present study provides emerging support that associations can be detected in adolescence. Future research will benefit from extending these results in adolescence and exploring these relations at earlier stages of development (e.g., infancy, middle childhood) using a longitudinal framework.