Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow

Katie A. McLaughin

Harvard University

Research Focus
Katie McLaughlin’s research examines how environmental experience shapes emotional, cognitive, and neurobiological development throughout childhood and adolescence. Her goal is to understand how adverse environments alter developmental processes in ways that increase risk for psychopathology. Understanding these mechanisms is critical for the development of interventions to prevent the onset of psychopathology in children who experience adversity. She pursues these research objectives using interdisciplinary methods drawn from clinical and developmental psychology, psychiatric epidemiology, psychophysiology, and cognitive neuroscience. This interdisciplinary approach is critical to understanding the complex relationships between social context, trajectories of child development, and mental health.

What have I achieved during my fellowship?
During the period of the fellowship, I conducted several large studies, each of which was designed to increase knowledge of how and why early adversity influences risk for health and academic problems in children and adolescents. One of these studies investigated how exposure to violence influences emotional development and brain networks that support emotional processing in children and whether disruptions in these processes following violence exposure confer risk for anxiety, depression, and aggressive behaviour. To do so we collected data on over 250 children aged 8-16 years at baseline across two time points with assessments of violence exposure, emotional processing, and brain structure and function. We recently completed data collection and the first empirical papers from the study have been accepted for publication.

The second major study examined how environmental deprivation, including poverty and neglect, influences cognitive development and brain networks that support memory, attention, and self-control and whether disruptions in cognitive development increase risk for academic failure, aggression, and risky behaviour. We collected data on 100 children aged 5-6 at baseline across two time points with intensive home observations of cognitive stimulation, behavioural tasks to examine executive functioning, and measures of brain structure and function.  The first paper from this study has been published and several others are under review.

The third major study examined how experiences of threat and deprivation, measured in a cohort of children who have been followed annually since age 3, uniquely influence emotional, cognitive, and neural development in ways that increase risk for psychopathology. The study included 225 children and adolescents aged 11-12 who completed clinical assessments, measures of emotional and cognitive development, and brain structure and function.

In a final study, we examined how experiences of stress lead to changes emotion, cognition, brain networks, and mental health using an innovative study design where children complete assessments of each of these domains each month for a year. In each of these studies, we aimed to identify factors that contribute to mental health and academic problems in children who experience adversity as well as protective factors that mitigate these risks.  We completed 12 monthly visits for 30 adolescents aged 15-17 (for a total of 360 assessments).  Data collection recently finished and the preliminary results were presented at the Flux meeting in September 2018.  We are preparing numerous papers for publication from this dataset.