The impact of early life stress on psychophysiological, personality and behavioral measures in 740 non-clinical subjects

Alexander Mcfarlane, Christopher R. Clark, Richard A. Bryant, Leanne M. Williams, Raymond Niaura, Robert H. Paul, Brian L. Hitsman, Laura Stroud, David M. Alexander, Evian Gordon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Early Life Stress (ELS) has been associated with a range of adverse outcomes in adults, including abnormalities in electrical brain activity [1], personality dimensions [40], increased vulnerability to substance abuse and depression [14]. The present study seeks to quantify these proposed effects in a large sample of non-clinical subjects. Data for the study was obtained from The Brain Resource International Database (six laboratories: two in USA, two in Europe, two in Australia). This study analyzed scalp electrophysiological data (EEG eyes open, closed and target auditory oddball data) and personality (NEO-FFI), history of addictive substance use and ELS) data that was acquired from 740 healthy volunteers. The ELS measures were collected via a self-report measure and covered a broad range of events from childhood sexual and physical abuse, to first-hand experience of traumatizing accidents and sustained domestic conflict [41]. Analysis of covariance, controlling for age and gender, compared EEG data from subjects exposed to ELS with those who were unexposed. ELS was associated with significantly decreased power across the EEG spectrum. The between group differences were strongest in the eyes closed paradigm, where subjects who experienced ELS showed significantly reduced beta (F1,405 = 12.37, p = .000), theta (F1,405 = 20.48, p = .000), alpha (F1,405 = 9.65, p = .002) and delta power (F1,450 = 36.22, p = .000). ELS exposed subjects also showed a significantly higher alpha peak frequency (F1,405 = 6.39, p = .012) in the eyes closed paradigm. Analysis of covariance on ERP components revealed that subjects who experienced ELS had significantly decreased N2 amplitude (F1,405 = 7.73, p = .006). Analyses of variance conducted on measures of personality revealed that subjects who experienced ELS had significantly higher levels of neuroticism (F1,264 = 13.39, p = .000) and openness (F1,264 = 17.11, p = .000), but lower levels of conscientiousness, than controls (F1,264 = 4.08, p = .044). The number of ELS events experienced was shown to be a significant predictor of scores on the DASS questionnaire [27], which rates subjects on symptoms of depression (F3,688 = 16.44, p = .000, R2 = .07), anxiety (F3,688 = 14.32, p = .000, R2 = .06) and stress (F3,688 = 20.02, p = .000, R2 = .08). Each additional early life stressor was associated with an increase in these scores independent of age, gender and the type of stressor. Furthermore, the number of ELS experiences among smokers was also found to be a positive predictor of the nicotine dependency score (Faegstrom Test For Nicotine Dependence, [19]) (F3,104 = 10.99, p = .000, R2 = .24), independent of age, gender and type of stressor. In conclusion, we highlight the impact of a history of ELS showed significant effects on brain function (EEG and ERP activity), personality dimensions and nicotine dependence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)27-40
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Integrative Neuroscience
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2005


  • Anxiety
  • EEG
  • ERPs
  • Early life stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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