Neural Reactivity to Emotional Stimuli Prospectively Predicts the Impact of a Natural Disaster on Psychiatric Symptoms in Children
Abstract Background Natural disasters expose entire communities to stress and trauma, leading to increased risk for psychiatric symptoms. Yet, the majority of exposed individuals are resilient, highlighting the importance of identifying underlying factors that contribute to outcomes. Methods The current study was part of a larger prospective study of children in Long Island, New York ( n = 260). At age 9, children viewed unpleasant and pleasant images while the late positive potential (LPP), an event-related potential component that reflects sustained attention toward salient information, was measured. Following the event-related potential assessment, Hurricane Sandy, the second costliest hurricane in United States history, hit the region. Eight weeks after the hurricane, mothers reported on exposure to hurricane-related stress and children's internalizing and externalizing symptoms. Symptoms were reassessed 8 months after the hurricane. Results The LPP predicted both internalizing and externalizing symptoms after accounting for prehurricane symptomatology and interacted with stress to predict externalizing symptoms. Among children exposed to higher levels of hurricane-related stress, enhanced neural reactivity to unpleasant images predicted greater externalizing symptoms 8 weeks after the disaster, while greater neural reactivity to pleasant images predicted lower externalizing symptoms. Moreover, interactions between the LPP and stress continued to predict externalizing symptoms 8 months after the hurricane. Conclusions Results indicate that heightened neural reactivity and attention toward unpleasant information, as measured by the LPP, predispose children to psychiatric symptoms when exposed to higher levels of stress related to natural disasters, while greater reactivity to and processing of pleasant information may be a protective factor.