Wide-Ranging Cognitive Deficits in Adolescents Following Early Life Maltreatment

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Abstract

Objective: Studies of adolescents with histories of maltreatment typically report specific cognitive deficits in higher order functioning and attention. Emerging evidence suggests that the cognitive difficulties seen in maltreated adolescents are much broader, and go beyond executive functioning impairments. This study examined whether maltreated adolescents exhibited cognitive deficits across a number of cognitive domains, in addition to executive functioning. Method: A group of 39 adolescents with documented histories of severe maltreatment were compared with 43 controls on measures of learning and memory, executive function, processing speed, working memory, visuoperceptual function, and language. Groups were matched demographically and on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children–IV (WISC-IV) Full Scale Intelligence Quotient (FSIQ; Wechsler, 2003). Results: Using multivariate analyses, the maltreated group showed significant impairments on measures of executive function and attention, working memory, learning, visuospatial function and visual processing speed. Effect sizes ranged from medium to large. Conclusions: The FSIQ indicated that these adolescents were performing comparably with their nonmaltreated peers, though this was not the case when specific cognitive functions were measured. This demonstrates that maltreated adolescents are more likely to have a range of cognitive deficits that can only be identified with thorough neuropsychological assessment. Such deficits have the potential to significantly impair adaptive, social, emotional, and academic functioning, explaining many of the typical difficulties seen in maltreated adolescents.

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