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Early Adversity and Drug Use Vulnerability Among Low Income Rural Children: Testing a Neuro-ecological Model of Resilience

Project Summary The influence of broader community contexts on children’s neurocognitive development and risk for downstream drug misuse is significant. The focus of this proposal is on low-income children who reside in rural Georgia. Being poor in the rural South is particularly challenging for families. Emerging research suggests that rural vs. urban poverty is characterized by distinct risk and protective factors that have unique effects on children’s neural and socioemotional development. These differences underscore the unique contextual risk and protective factors that affect the development of drug use vulnerability among rural youth. Informed by an ecological developmental neuroscience perspective, we purport that neural markers of vulnerability cannot be understood in isolation from children’s experience of their ecological contexts. The proposed study is among the first to integrate neural assessments with multidimensional assessments of environmental stressors and protective processes in rural communities and begins following children at age 7 during a sensitive developmental period for life-course-persistent effects on drug use vulnerability. Our core premise posits that the efficiency of cognitive control systems (cognitive control networks [CCN]) in modulating socioemotional systems (emotion, reward, and salience networks [ERSN]) is a mechanism linking rural children’s exposure to adversity to their drug use vulnerabilities. We consider the multidimensional nature of adversity and specify environmental experiences associated with threat, deprivation, and unpredictability. However, considerable individual differences exist in the pathway linking adversity to drug use vulnerability, a product of children’s exposure to family, peer, school, and community protective processes. We propose to recruit 265 low-income, rural children (age 7) and their primary caregivers into a prospective cohort study (following children from ages 7 to 10). Children will participate in fMRI scans to assess CCN modulation of the ERSN. To assess exposure to adversity and social-ecological protective factors, we will obtain rich multi-level information that can be used to test the following aims: 1) the influence of childhood adversity on neural risk mechanisms, 2) the indirect influence of adversity on drug use vulnerability via neural risk mechanisms, and 3) the moderating influence of family, peer, school, and community protective factors on the links between childhood adversity neural risk as well as between neural risk and drug use vulnerabilities. Multi-level research that effectively connects rural contexts, neuroimaging, and behavioral data is critical for advancing the precision and specificity of developmental models of drug use resilience for this population.

Funder: NIH

Amount: $3,264,082

PI: Assaf Oshri