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High unpredictability has emerged as a dimension of early-life adversity that may contribute to a host of deleterious consequences later in life. Early-life unpredictability affects development of limbic and reward circuits in both rodents and humans, with a potential to increase sensitivity to stressors and mood symptoms later in life. Here, we examined the extent to which unpredictability during childhood was associated with changes in mood symptoms (anhedonia and general depression) after two adult life stressors, combat deployment and civilian reintegration, which were assessed ten years apart. We also examined how perceived stress and social support mediated and /or moderated links between childhood unpredictability and mood symptoms. To test these hypotheses, we leveraged the Marine Resiliency Study, a prospective longitudinal study of the effects of combat deployment on mental health in Active-Duty Marines and Navy Corpsman. Participants (N = 273) were assessed for depression and anhedonia before (pre-deployment) and 3–6 months after (acute post-deployment) a combat deployment. Additional assessment of depression and childhood unpredictability were collected 10 years post-deployment (chronic post-deployment). Higher childhood unpredictability was associated with higher anhedonia and general depression at both acute and chronic post-deployment timepoints (βs > 0.16, ps <.007). The relationship between childhood unpredictability and subsequent depression at acute post-deployment was partially mediated by lower social support (b = 0.07, 95% CI [0.03, 0.15]) while depression at chronic post-deployment was fully mediated by a combination of lower social support (b = 0.14, 95% CI [0.07, 0.23]) and higher perceived stress (b = 0.09, 95% CI [0.05, 0.15]). These findings implicate childhood unpredictability as a potential risk factor for depression in adulthood and suggest that increasing the structure and predictability of childhood routines and developing social support interventions after life stressors could be helpful for preventing adult depression.


This article was originally published in Journal of Mood & Anxiety Disorders, volume 6, in 2024.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.



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