Emotional trauma and children’s executive functioning : is there a connection?

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Holder, Christen Marie

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The purpose of this dissertation was to examine the connection between emotional trauma and executive function ability in children and adolescents. Trauma is defined as an overwhelming event that is beyond the realm of what might be an expectable occurrence for the average person. A serious outcome, occurring in around 14% of those children who experience trauma, is the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is classified as an anxiety disorder occurring after exposure to a traumatic event, in which symptoms of re-experiencing, avoidance, and arousal are present. In addition to the numerous physical, emotional, and social effects of trauma, neuropsychological and imaging research has confirmed that children’s neuroanatomy and cognitive functioning are often affected. It has been proposed that intrusive thoughts occurring immediately after the trauma event may modify the neural network function, setting the stage for neurobiological dysregulation. One of the most common neural anatomic areas of concern following trauma is the prefrontal cortex, a structure that continues to develop until the third decade of life, and that has been implicated as the home of executive function, an idea conceptualized in a number of ways, but that is most often considered an umbrella term describing essential functions of the mind, such as planning, inhibition, attention, and working memory. The scope of literature addressing the effect of trauma on executive function is minimal. It is the hypothesis of this study that early trauma may disrupt the normal development of the PFC and subsequently result in decreased executive functioning abilities. In order to explore this hypothesis, a set of neuropsychological measures were selected as representative of executive functioning, based on previous research. An initial factor analysis was conducted in order to determine if, as suspected, all subtests chosen load on a common factor of executive function. Multiple linear regression was used to determine whether children who experienced trauma have impaired executive functioning abilities, if there was a significant gender difference, and what, if any, differences there were between children who developed PTSD and children who did not.



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