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OBJECTIVE: Early maltreatment increases lifetime risk of psychopathology. Emerging models suggest that exposure to maltreatment leads to changes in cognitive processes associated with the processing of threat, including processes of selective attention. Existing data may be interpreted to suggest that maltreatment is associated with an automatic attentional engagement with threatening cues, or that maltreatment is associated with generally poorer attention control. Using a pair of attention tasks, this study sought to examine whether maltreatment was associated with threat-related interference on attention processing and if this could be explained by poorer attentional control capacity. METHOD: Fifty-one maltreated adolescents from an out-of-home care sample in New South Wales, Australia were recruited to complete two attention tasks. Data from 24 of these participants were compared with that of a sample of non-maltreated peers matched on gender, age, cognitive ability, and household income to identify maltreatment-associated group differences. Data from all participants were then used to explore the degree to which attention variables correlated with continuous measures of internalising symptoms, subtypes, and severity of maltreatment. RESULTS: On the first task, maltreated adolescents showed significant interference from an irrelevant but non-emotional distractor on reaction times when completing a central letter identification task under low perceptual task conditions. On the second task, maltreated adolescents also showed similar interference on a probe-identification task that involved ignoring threatening (angry face) distractors, again under low perceptual load. CONCLUSIONS: These data may suggest difficulties exercising attention control following early maltreatment. These may contribute to the emergence of psychiatric disorders and other difficulties for those exposed to maltreatment.

Original publication




Conference paper

Publication Date





143 - 153


adolescence, cognitive control, maltreatment, selective attention, threat bias