Childhood trauma is tied to impaired social cognition in adults diagnosed with major psychiatric disorders, according to a new Irish study published in the journal European Psychiatry.
‘Social cognition’ is a psychology term related to how people process and apply information regarding other people and social interactions. It focuses on the role that cognitive processes play in social situations. For example, the way we think about others significantly influences how we think, feel, and interact with the world around us.
The study findings show that a traumatic early social environment often leads to social cognitive problems and greater illness severity for people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, major depressive disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Early childhood neglect, abuse, and/or trauma puts patients at greater risk for developing cognitive impairments that will later affect social perception and interaction, a core aspect of disability in major psychiatric disorders,” said lead investigator Gary Donohoe, MPsychSc, DClinPsych, PhD, Centre for Neuroimaging and Cognitive Genomics at the National University of Ireland.
Problems with social cognitive function are a hallmark feature of major psychiatric disorders resulting in poor social and occupational functioning, specifically with regard to emotion recognition and regulation, theory of mind (the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others), attributional style, and social perception.
Traumatic childhood experiences — such as emotional and physical abuse and neglect, early loss of caregivers, and insecure attachment styles — are reported in up to 85 percent of patients with various psychiatric disorders.
The findings help us gain a better understanding of the links between a traumatic early social environment and subsequent social cognitive problems and greater illness severity for a range of major psychiatric disorders in adulthood.
The first three years of life are a very sensitive period for the development of attachment relationships, and exposure to trauma during this time has irreversible effects on future cognitive, social, and emotional development.
The association between childhood adversity and insecure attachment is supported by a number of studies. Once a dysfunctional attachment pattern is formed in childhood, it tends to persist later in life and can cause misperceptions of others’ intentions and beliefs.
Higher levels of threat vigilance can distract abuse victims from processing peripheral cognitive and social information, and the lack of stable, positive role models can interfere with their ability to recognize and respond to emotional cues.
The researchers hope the new findings will guide future public health efforts to develop clinical interventions that reduce the consequences of childhood trauma.
“With a better understanding of the connections between early trauma and later deficits, mental health clinicians may be able to develop strategic interventions that ameliorate patients’ disabilities and improve their quality of life. The fact that these deficits are not generally improved by antipsychotic medication makes social cognition an important treatment target and the development of a causal working model of the deficits of crucial importance,” Donohoe said.
The study involved a systematic assessment of more than 2,650 published papers on the topic to provide a comprehensive picture of current research.
Of these, 25 research articles were found to meet the study’s strict criteria and were included in the published review, but the study authors point out that more research is needed to determine the relationship between early adversity and genetic risk and how they contribute to social cognitive development.