RWJF Health & Society Scholar:
Clinical Psychology, Psychiatric Epidemiology
Area(s) of Expertise:
Childhood Adversity, Stress and Psychopathology
Dr. Katie McLaughlin is a clinical psychologist with interests in the effects of the childhood social environment on brain and behavioral development in children and adolescents. She has a joint Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and in Chronic Disease Epidemiology from Yale University and was recently promoted to Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington. Her research examines how environmental experience shapes emotional, cognitive, and neurobiological development throughout childhood and adolescence.
Dr. McLaughlin’s overarching goal is to understand how adverse environments alter developmental processes in ways that increase risk for psychopathology. To develop normally, children require a wide variety of inputs from the environment. The simplest demonstration of this principle can be seen in sensory systems; normal visual development requires patterned light input from the environment during a sensitive period in the first six months of life. Similar sensitive periods exist for the development of more complex behaviors and competencies, including language and the formation of an attachment relationship to a primary caregiver. What happens when these expected environmental inputs are absent or atypical? Dr. McLaughlin’s research examines how the absence of expected environmental inputs—as in the case of child neglect, institutional rearing, and poverty—and the presence of atypical or traumatic inputs—such as abuse and exposure to other forms of interpersonal violence—shape children’s development and, ultimately, their vulnerability to mental illness. Her research uncovers specific developmental processes that are disrupted by adverse environmental experiences early in life and determines how those disruptions increase risk for mental health problems in children and adolescents. Understanding these mechanisms is critical for the development of interventions to prevent the onset of psychopathology in children who experience adversity.
Dr. McLaughlin’s research has made important contributions to psychological science in several domains. First, her research has demonstrated that childhood adversity is a common societal problem that plays a critical role in shaping the distribution of mental disorders in the population. Second, Dr. McLaughlin has identified emotional, cognitive, and neurobiological mechanisms that underlie the associations of childhood adversity with mental disorders and demonstrated that some of these mechanisms are common across multiple forms of adversity and some are specific to particular adversity types. She has developed conceptual models of the pathways through which adverse early environments influence developmental processes to confer risk for psychopathology that provide the foundation upon which her work on mechanisms is built. Third, Dr. McLaughlin has identified protective factors that buffer children from the negative mental health consequences of childhood adversity as well as sensitive periods of development when specific systems are most likely to be impacted by the environment. Finally, she has worked throughout her career to translate knowledge about mechanisms, protective factors, and sensitive periods into interventions aimed at preventing the onset of child and adolescent mental health problems. Dr. McLaughlin’s work in these areas has utilized interdisciplinary methods drawn from clinical and developmental psychology, psychiatric epidemiology, psychophysiology, and cognitive neuroscience.
Dr. McLaughlin has published more than 135 peer-reviewed journal articles on these topics. Her research has been funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Jacobs Foundation, the Charles H. Hood Foundation, the Brain and Behavior Foundation, and the IMHRO One Mind Institute. She has received early career awards from the Society for the Science of Clinical Psychology, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, and the Jacobs Foundation as well as the Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology from the American Psychological Association.
Dr. McLaughlin’s overarching goal is to contribute to greater understanding of the role of environmental experience in shaping children’s development, so as to inform the creation of interventions, practices, and policies to promote adaptive development in society’s most vulnerable members.