Effects of early life adversity on immune function and cognitive performance: results from the ALSPAC cohort

Jessica F. Holland, Golam M. Khandaker, Maria R. Dauvermann, Derek Morris, Stanley Zammit, Gary Donohoe*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Early life adversity (ELA) is a significant risk factor for mental health disorders. One hypothesised mechanism by which this occurs is via an effect on immune response. In this analysis of epidemiological data, we tested whether ELA was associated with cognitive performance, and if so, whether these effects were influenced by immune function. 

Methods: We investigated the longitudinal relationship between ELA, inflammatory markers, and cognition in data from Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents And Children (ALSPAC; n ~ 5000). ELA was defined in terms of physical/emotional abuse, harsh parenting, or domestic violence before 5 years. Social cognition was measured in terms of theory of mind, and general cognitive ability was measured using IQ. Inflammatory markers included serum C-reactive protein and interleukin-6 levels. 

Results: A significant association was observed between IQ and harsh parenting, whereby children who were physically disciplined had lower IQ scores (accounting for relevant social factors). Both immune markers were associated with variation in cognition, however, neither accounted for the effects of ELA on cognition. 

Discussion: This study highlights the impact of ELA on cognition. In the absence of evidence that these effects are explained by inflammation, other mechanisms by which the effects of ELA are mediated are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)723-733
Number of pages11
JournalSocial Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology
Issue number6
Early online date2 Jan 2020
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Jessica Holland’s research is supported by a PhD scholarship from the Irish Research Council. GD’s research is supported by generous funding from the European Research Council (Grant no. 677467) and Science Foundation Ireland (Grant no. 16/ERCS/3787). Dr. Khandaker acknowledges funding support from the Wellcome Trust (Intermediate Clinical Fellowship; Grant no.: 201486/Z/16/Z), MRC (Grant no.: MC_PC_17213), and MQ: Transforming Mental Health (Grant no.: MQDS17/40). Prof Zammit acknowledges funding support from the National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centre at the University Hospitals Bristol National Health Service Foundation Trust and the University of Bristol. Access to the ALSPAC data set was granted by University of Bristol ALSPAC committee. We are grateful to all families who took part in the ALSPAC study, midwives for their help in recruitment, and the whole ALSPAC team, including interviewers, computer and laboratory technicians, clerical workers, research scientists, volunteers, managers, receptionists, and nurses.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020, Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature.


  • Adversity
  • Cognition
  • Immune response

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Epidemiology
  • Health(social science)
  • Social Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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