Background: Childhood maltreatment represents a strong risk factor for the development of depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in later life. In the present study, we investigated the neurobiological underpinnings of this association. Since both depression and PTSD have been associated with increased amygdala responsiveness to negative stimuli as well as reduced hippocampal gray matter volume, we speculated that childhood maltreatment results in similar functional and structural alterations in previously maltreated but healthy adults.
Methods: One hundred forty-eight healthy subjects were enrolled via public notices and newspaper announcements and were carefully screened for psychiatric disorders. Amygdala responsiveness was measured by means of functional magnetic resonance imaging and an emotional face-matching paradigm particularly designed to activate the amygdala in response to threat-related faces. Voxel-based morphometry was used to study morphological alterations. Childhood maltreatment was assessed by the 25-item Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ).
Results: We observed a strong association of CTQ scores with amygdala responsiveness to threat-related facial expressions. The morphometric analysis yielded reduced gray matter volumes in the hippocampus, insula, orbitofrontal cortex, anterior cingulate gyrus, and caudate in subjects with high CTQ scores. Both of these associations were not influenced by trait anxiety, depression level, age, intelligence, education, or more recent stressful life events.
Conclusions: Childhood maltreatment is associated with remarkable functional and structural changes even decades later in adulthood. These changes strongly resemble findings described in depression and PTSD. Therefore, the present results might suggest that limbic hyperresponsiveness and reduced hippocampal volumes could be mediators between the experiences of adversities during childhood and the development of emotional disorders.