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Measuring novel antecedents of mental illness: the Questionnaire of Unpredictability in Childhood


Increasing evidence indicates that, in addition to poverty, maternal depression, and other well-established factors, unpredictability of maternal and environmental signals early in life influences trajectories of brain development, determining risk for subsequent mental illness. However, whereas most risk factors for later vulnerability to mental illness are readily measured using existing, clinically available tools, there are no similar measures for assessing early-life unpredictability. Here we validate the Questionnaire of Unpredictability in Childhood (QUIC) and examine its associations with mental health in the context of other indicators of childhood adversity (e.g., traumatic life events, socioeconomic status, and parenting quality). The QUIC was initially validated through administration to a cohort of adult females (N = 116) and then further refined in two additional independent cohorts (male Veterans, N = 95, and male and female adolescents, N = 175). The QUIC demonstrated excellent internal (α = 0.89) and test-retest reliability (r = 92). Scores on the QUIC were positively correlated with other prospective indicators of exposures to unpredictable maternal inputs in infancy and childhood (unpredictable maternal mood and sensory signals), and accuracy of recall also was confirmed with prospective data. Importantly, the QUIC predicted symptoms of anxiety, depression, and anhedonia in the three study cohorts, and these effects persisted after adjusting for other previously established risk factors. The QUIC, a reliable and valid self-report assessment of exposure to unpredictability in the social, emotional, and physical domains during early life, is a brief, comprehensive, and promising instrument for predicting risk for mental illness.

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