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Individuals who have suffered from adverse childhood experiences are more likely to accept less and lower-weight reward feedback.

Individuals who have suffered from adverse childhood experiences are more likely to accept less and lower-weight reward feedback.

Significance

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which are extreme stressors that have a profound effect on cognitive development, are known to have a profound effect on cognitive development. We demonstrate that ACEs can lead to decreased exploration, which in turn leads these individuals to receive fewer rewards from the environment. We find that ACE-exposed individuals are less likely to explore, which is consistent with computational modeling. This highlights a cognitive mechanism that may be linked to childhood trauma and the onset or maintenance of psychopathology.

Abstract

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), are extreme stressors that can lead to adverse psychosocial outcomes in adulthood. Nonhuman animals exhibit a reduced ability to explore after being exposed to stress early in their lives. We hypothesized, therefore, that ACEs would cause a reduction in exploration in humans. In a foraging task, we predicted that adults with ACEs would adopt a decision making policy that relies upon the most recent reward feedback. This is a rational strategy in unstable environments. We analyzed data of 145 adult participants. 47 had more than four ACEs, while 98 had fewer. Participants evaluated the tradeoff between exploiting a familiar patch with diminishing reward and exploring a new patch with a fresh distribution. We used computational modeling to quantify the impact of recent feedback on participants’ decisions. Participants with ACEs explored less, as predicted. Contrary to our hypothesis, participants with ACEs explored less. These unexpected results indicate that reward sensitivity may be affected by early adversity. Our findings could help to identify cognitive mechanisms linking childhood trauma to psychopathology.

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