B4432 - The Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences on Autonomic Functioning Across the Lifecourse - 23/10/2023

B number: 
Principal applicant name: 
Yvonne Kelly | University College London
Mrs Sidonie Kilpatrick, Dr Rebecca Lacey
Title of project: 
The Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences on Autonomic Functioning Across the Lifecourse
Proposal summary: 

In the past 25 years, studies like the Welsh Adverse Childhood Experiences and Resiliency Survey (Public Health Whales 2018) and a representative British household survey (Bellis et al. 2014) have revealed that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as abuse and neglect, are very common. They have highlighted an unfortunate truth that around 50% of children in England and Wales have experienced at least one form of adversity in childhood (Public Health Whales 2018, Bellis et al., 2014).

Traditionally, researchers have measured ACEs by summing up the total number of adversities experienced (cumulative risk models) across childhood and adolescence. Additionally, researchers have stressed the importance of investigating the individual impact of specific adversities, called specificity models. Both methods, however, have their weaknesses. Cumulative risk models do not account for the child’s experiences, and the duration and the timing of the experience. Conversely, examining individual adversities ignores the co-occurrence of these experiences and allows the relationship to potentially be confounded by other adversities.

In recent years, researchers such as Ellis and colleagues (2022) have introduced a new, comprehensive method to assess environmental adversity, known as dimensional models. A dimensional approach to measuring and classifying ACEs is a powerful tool as it recognises and evaluates a wide spectrum of negative experiences that differ in severity and timing. This enables researchers to delve into the ways and reasons by which negative environmental experiences affect developmental processes.

ACEs have been linked to many adverse cardiovascular health outcomes in every stage of the life span. In childhood 4 or more ACEs have been linked to increased resting heart rate (HR) in late childhood (12-14 years) (Petty et al., 2013) and enlarged arterial stiffness from childhood to young adulthood over time (Rafiq et al., 2020). Adults who experience a larger number and a greater impact to adverse life events in childhood demonstrated higher HR reactivity in response to an acute psychological stressor, indicating that life events are associated with elevated HR and reduced HR complexity in response to acute stress (Schneider et al., 2021). Moreover, these results indicate that poor cardiovascular outcomes appear earlier than expected in late childhood and early adolescence, stressing the importance of early intervention.

The connection between ACEs and cardiovascular health is not consistent because of the heterogeneity in ACEs definitions and study populations (Wesarg et al., 2022). To gain better insights into how a child’s unique vulnerability to adversity is mediated by individual characteristics, such as family factors, extrafamilial conditions, personality, or temperament (Belsky et al., 2013), a life course approach using birth cohort data is needed.

Sidonie Kilpatrick’s PhD dissertation investigates how ACEs impact heart-related automatic functions (i.e., autonomic functioning) throughout an individual’s life and identifies factors that can mitigate this impact. She will use data from two studies, the 1946 National Survey of Health and Development (NSHD) and the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), that collect information from the prenatal period to death. She plans to evaluate how ACEs influence resting blood pressure and heart rate across the life span and midlife heart rate variability. Additionally, she plans to evaluate how specific characteristics or interventions can influence resting HR and BP across the life course to better inform early intervention and policy.

Bellis M A, Hughes K, Lechenby N, et al., . National household survey of adverse childhood experiences and their relationship with resilience to health-harming behaviors in England. BMC Med. 2014; 72(12): https://doi.org/10.1186/1741-7015-12-72

Belsky J, Pluess M. Beyond risk, resilience, and dysregulation: phenotypic plasticity and human development. Dev Psychopathol. 2013 Nov;25(4 Pt 2):1243–61.

Ellis BJ, Sheridan MA, Belsky J, McLaughlin KA. Why and how does early adversity influence development? Toward an integrated model of dimensions of environmental experience. Dev Psychopathol. 2022 May;34(2):447–71.

Pretty C, O’Leary DD, Cairney J, Wade TJ. Adverse childhood experiences and the cardiovascular health of children: a cross-sectional study. BMC Pediatr. 2013 Dec 17;13:208.

Public Health Whales, Sources of resilience and their moderating relationships with harms from adverse childhood experiences. Public Health Whales. 2018; https
://www.wales.nhs.uk/sitesplus/documents/888/ACE%20&%20Resilience%20Report %20(Eng_final2).pdf

Rafiq T, O’Leary DD, Dempster KS, Cairney J, Wade TJ. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Predict Increased Arterial Stiffness from Childhood to Early Adulthood: Pilot Analysis of the Niagara Longitudinal Heart Study. J Child Adolesc Trauma. 2020 May 30;13(4):505–14.

Schneider M, Kraemmer MM, Weber B, Schwerdtfeger AR. Life events are associated with elevated heart rate and reduced heart complexity to acute psychological stress. Biol Psychol. 2021 Jul 1;163:108116.

Wesarg C, Van den Akker AL, Oei NYL, Wiers RW, Staaks J, Thayer JF, et al. Childhood adversity and vagal regulation: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2022 Dec 1;143:104920.

Impact of research: 
The findings of this study can help develop interventions and policies aimed at reducing the impact of ACEs and identifying periods in development where interventions can be directed to change mitigate or reduce the impact of reduced threat perception caused by childhood adversities.
Date proposal received: 
Friday, 6 October, 2023
Date proposal approved: 
Monday, 23 October, 2023
Epidemiology, Behaviour - e.g. antisocial behaviour, risk behaviour, etc., Cognitive impairment, Hypertension, Mental health, Pregnancy - e.g. reproductive health, postnatal depression, birth outcomes, etc., Tachycardia, Statistical methods, Birth outcomes, Blood pressure, Environment - enviromental exposure, pollution, Fathers, Growth, Injury (including accidents), Mothers - maternal age, menopause, obstetrics, Methods - e.g. cross cohort analysis, data mining, mendelian randomisation, etc., Nutrition - breast feeding, diet, Parenting, Psychology - personality, Physical - activity, fitness, function, BMI, Sex differences, Social science, Statistical methods, Breast feeding, Cardiovascular, Cohort studies - attrition, bias, participant engagement, ethics, Childhood - childcare, childhood adversity, Cognition - cognitive function, Communication (including non-verbal), Development