Researchers investigate long-term effects of early abuse

By Marjorie S. Miller
January 09, 2015

Penn State researchers want to know if victims of child sexual abuse age faster than their counterparts.

Though the physiological effects of early life trauma receive considerable attention, many of these victims are not followed up on, and long-term outcomes are not always studied.

Jennie Noll, professor of human development and family studies, wants to change that.

Noll is principal investigator of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Female Growth and Development Study (FGDS), a longitudinal study of the long-term sequelae of sexual abuse that began in 1987. At the time, the mean age of the girls in the sample was 10.

In September, Noll was awarded additional funding from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to continue to track the cohort and conduct assessments when the women in the sample will be aged 38 to 40.  

Researchers specializing in aging in the College of Health and Human Development have joined the study, which aims to examine the long-term effects of child maltreatment and premature cognitive aging in later life.

Combining expertise

Noll is a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) and director of research and education at the Network on Child Protection and Well-Being.

“For most of the past 17 years I have had the distinct good fortune to work directly with Frank Putnam (University of North Carolina School of Medicine) and Penelope Trickett (University School of Southern California School of Social Work) on their ground-breaking study, and I have been a PI for the past 10 years,” Noll said. Both Putnam and Trickett remain involved in the research.

Noll, whose graduate training is in aging, joined Penn State about a year ago, at which time she began working with Martin Sliwinski and David Almeida at the Center for Healthy Aging.

“Recently, we received an NIH Research Project Grant to continue to assess this cohort, and their offspring, for the seventh and eighth waves, which will constitute the 27 and 30 year follow-ups of the initial assessment. The three main aims of the grant will be the assessment of physical health outcomes, intergenerational transmission of the effects of sexual abuse, and the identification of mechanisms of resilience,” Noll said.

Asking more questions

Of the 200 women in the study, half have been sexually abused. The other half, a matched control group, are of the same ages and races as their counterparts who have been abused, and also come from the same neighborhoods and family constellations. Therefore, any differences in cognitive function would most likely be due to abuse, not socioeconomic status.

Noll noticed a few years ago, because of her background in aging, that the women who had suffered abuse were displaying cognitive or reasoning problems. In a paper on receptive language for sexually abused females, published in the journal Pediatrics in 2010, she found that victims of abuse were scoring lower on reasoning and memory tests.

“I thought that it’s too early for the women to be showing these symptoms,” she said. “In normal development we wouldn’t start seeing things until the late 60s.” 

That’s why she decided to bring in Sliwinski and Almeida. “I knew I was going to need their expertise,” she said.

The new grant adds cognitive tests, including about two weeks of daily stress coping assessments, to the original protocol, which contains a variety of vocabulary and reasoning tests. Assessments added by Sliwinski explore more fine-grained cognitive systems, such as information processing and visual acuity. These additional tests will enable researchers to more accurately pinpoint defects so they can target interventions, Noll said.

“This is so we can say something much more definitive about the processes that are being affected,” she said.

Noll believes that cognitive processes are impacted by early stress; that childhood sexual abuse is essentially bad for brain development. Furthermore, chronic stress results in more permanent cognitive damage than short-term stress, she said.

For the cognitive assessments, subjects address what their stressors are and how they are coping through questionnaires and brain games on electronic tablets.

“We think (chronic stress) is the most damaging kind of stress,” Noll said.

The grant is funded under what Noll calls the “reversibility pot,” money designated specifically for research aimed at reversing the effects of chronic conditions. 

“We want science to show what we can do in midlife to change this cycle,” she said. “Can we train people at midlife to cope better so cognitive processes are preserved longer?”

Noll said there are no other studies of stress that examine these processes all across the lifespan. “This is a good opportunity to advance several fields all at once,” she said.

Almeida, professor of HDFS, said he and Noll bring complementary areas of expertise to the study. Almeida studies “normal” stress as it affects daily life, while Noll focuses on long-term stress related to trauma. Together they are evaluating how childhood trauma affects daily life.

“What happens in childhood lays the foundation for your life,” said Sliwinski, professor of HDFS and director of the Center for Healthy Aging. “What we brought to the table was different methods to measure stress.”

The study is entitled “Daily Stress Coping & Premature Cognitive Aging in Child Abuse Victims at Midlife.”

For more information about the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State visit

For more information about the Center for Healthy Aging visit

For more information about the Network on Child Protection and Well-Being visit

  • Jennie Noll

    Jennie Noll, professor of human development and family studies

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated July 28, 2017