A new study led by Ellen Kessel, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook University, suggests that high levels of stress associated with Hurricane Sandy may have left a lasting impact on children’s brain development. The research, “Hurricane Sandy Exposure Alters the Development of Neural Reactivity to Negative Stimuli in Children,” is published in the March/April 2018 issue of Child Development.
Stony Brook faculty that collaborated on the study with Kessel include Clinical Psychology Professors Daniel Klein and Brady Nelson and Psychiatry Professors Roman Kotov, Evelyn Bromet and Gabrielle Carlson, along with Greg Hajcak from Florida State University and Autumn Kujawa from Vanderbilt University.
Little is known about how stressors associated with exposure to natural disasters impact brain development. “We had the rare opportunity to build on a pre-existing study of child development directly affected by Hurricane Sandy, enabling us to examine how natural disaster-related stress impacted the development of brain systems that underlie emotional reactivity,” said Kessel.
Approximately eight months prior to Hurricane Sandy, a study was done that measured children’s brain activity in response to negative and positive emotional images using electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures the brain’s cortical electrical activity. Six weeks after the hurricane, mothers completed a questionnaire about the degree to which children were exposed to Hurricane Sandy-related stressors. Nine months after Hurricane Sandy, 77 children experiencing the highest and lowest levels of hurricane-related stress exposure returned to the lab and again viewed negative and positive emotional images while EEG was recorded.
The study found that exposure to Hurricane Sandy-related stressors altered neural reactivity to negative emotional information. Specifically, they found that from pre- to post-Hurricane Sandy, children with high-stress exposure failed to show the same decrease in brain reactivity to negative emotional images compared to those with low stress exposure.
“Our results suggest that Hurricane Sandy-related stress disrupted neurodevelopment in a manner that maintains relatively heightened levels of vigilance to threat,” Kessel explained. “Youth who live through natural disasters experience higher rates of psychiatric problems that continue into adulthood. Alterations in the development of neural reactivity to negative information may be one way through which disasters lead to these outcomes.”
Enhanced reactivity to negative emotional information is associated with risk for mental health problems like anxiety and depression. It remains to be seen whether the disruption in the development of negative emotional reactivity found in the study persists and whether it relates to subsequent mental health outcomes.