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Contribution of early-life unpredictability to neuropsychiatric symptom patterns in adulthood.

BACKGROUND: Recent studies in both human and experimental animals have identified fragmented and unpredictable parental and environmental signals as a novel source of early-life adversity. Early-life unpredictability may be a fundamental developmental factor that impacts brain development, including reward and emotional memory circuits, affecting the risk for psychopathology later in life. Here, we tested the hypothesis that self-reported early-life unpredictability is associated with psychiatric symptoms in adult clinical populations.

METHODS: Using the newly validated Questionnaire of Unpredictability in Childhood, we assessed early-life unpredictability in 156 trauma-exposed adults, of which 65% sought treatment for mood, anxiety, and/or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. All participants completed symptom measures of PTSD, depression and anhedonia, anxiety, alcohol use, and chronic pain. Relative contributions of early-life unpredictability versus childhood trauma and associations with longitudinal outcomes over a 6-month period were determined.

RESULTS: Early-life unpredictability, independent of childhood trauma, was significantly associated with higher depression, anxiety symptoms, and anhedonia, and was related to higher overall symptom ratings across time. Early-life unpredictability was also associated with suicidal ideation, but not alcohol use or pain symptoms.

CONCLUSIONS: Early-life unpredictability is an independent and consistent predictor of specific adult psychiatric symptoms, providing impetus for studying mechanisms of its effects on the developing brain that promote risk for psychopathology.

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