When control of socio-emotional behavior fails, people fall back on basic “freeze-fight-flight” (FFF) reactions. Chronic failures in emotion regulation are symptomatic of anxiety and aggression-related disorders. Therefore, it is crucial to investigate the development and control of these FFF tendencies during a time period that is sensitive to external as well as internal influences. Adolescence is precisely such a critical period and constitutes a transition phase between childhood and adulthood when a wide range of behavioral, emotional, social, and physical changes take place. This is also a time marked by the greatest onset risk for affective disorders which often continue developing into adulthood.

This project is carried out in collaboration with the Nijmegen Longitudinal Study on Infant and Child Development, which has followed children and their families since infancy. The aim of this project is to isolate the predictive markers of FFF tendencies in the development of affective disorders such as aggression and anxiety, utilizing knowledge from behavioral science, psychopathology, and neuroscience to examine associations of FFF tendencies from childhood to adolescence. We use multidisciplinary techniques combining behavioral, physiological, neuroimaging, genetic, and psychometric methods to investigate the potential risk factors for the development of psychopathology. This is crucial for the development of early symptom detection and more efficient therapeutic or preventive measures.

First results:

We have shown that early negative caregiving experiences (secure vs. insecure attachment) can have long-lasting effects on the human stress and threat systems (assessed via the human freezing response) (Niermann et al., 2015). Additionally, we have shown that executive control of automatic emotional tendencies shifts from subcortical to prefrontal structures during pubertal development. This transition was observed during mid adolescence and suggests that the pulvinar and amygdala may be the precursors of the mature control system centered on the anterior prefrontal cortex (Tyborowska et al., 2016).