Research into the impact of childhood adversity

Mattia Gerin, PhD student at the Developmental Risk and Resilience Unit at University College London, talks to us about his research into the impact of childhood maltreatment on neurological and psychological functioning.

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Tell us a bit about yourself

After completing a 2-year UCL masters in Developmental Neuroscience and Psychopathology offered in collaboration with the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families and Yale University, I joined the Developmental Risk and Resilience Unit (DRRU) as a PhD Student.

What are you trying to find out and what methods are you using?

Under the supervision of Professors Eamon McCrory and Essi Viding, I am currently investigating how childhood maltreatment affects neurological and psychological functioning in ways that increases vulnerability (and resilience) to mental health problems. In order to achieve these aims I am using neuroimaging techniques (such as task-based functional MRI and resting-state functional connectivity) and also behavioural experimental paradigms that measure affective, cognitive and social functioning.

What motivates you to work in this field?

Arguably, childhood maltreatment represents the strongest environmental predictor of poor mental health across the lifespan. However, there is a remarkable lack of precision in our understanding of how maltreatment ‘gets under the skin’ and alters psychological and neurobiological functioning in ways that increases vulnerability to mental health problems. Because of this lack of specific knowledge, it remains difficult to identify and help those children (and adults!) that are at greater risk of developing psychological problems following early adversity and trauma. Therefore, it is highly motivating to work in a field which is novel and that has the potential of having a positive impact!

Do you have any interesting findings from your research so far?

In the last five years or so, several studies from the DRRU have shown that experience of maltreatment can have a long-lasting impact on neurological and cognitive systems that are important for the processing of social information, emotion regulation, memory and attention. Recently, in one of my own studies, I have shown that young people exposed to maltreatment, compared to their non-maltreated peers, use different brain networks when they process information which is important for successful decision-making, such as when estimating and predicting the outcome of a given action.

Importantly, we have come to understand that the nature of these psychological and neurological changes associated with maltreatment are an adaptation and recalibration to hostile and neglectful early environments. However, despite conferring short-term advantages these changes can come at a long-term cost when they no longer appropriate, and may increase the risk of developing a mental health problem.

What does a typical day at work look like for you?

There is no such a thing as a typical day! Some days I am busy making home visits and administering our tasks and questionnaires with the families and young people that take part in our study. On other days we invite them to come to us on the University College London campus, so that they can have a brain scan. They usually love this part because at the end of it they receive a nice picture of their own brain! On other days, as a team, we meet and review new research and papers that have been published recently or we have guest speakers come to discuss their work. Also, a large part of what I do involves analysing the brain and behavioural data and information that we collect and writing up the results so that they can be published and disseminated in scientific journals and at conferences.

Related content

Click to watch Professor Eamon McCrory's recent presentation introducing the concept of latent vulnerability

Click to discover the Anna Freud Learning Networks' top 5 open access research papers

Click to read Matt Forde, Head of NSPCC Scotland, 'The Legacy of Trauma' blog contribution for the spotlight

Click to read 'Childhood Adversity and Trauma: Spotlight on Innovation in Practice'