The impact of maltreatment on child development: Using neuroimaging approaches to investigate risk and resilience

  • Research project team

    • Professor Eamon McCrory,
    • Philip Kelly,
    • Professor Essi Viding,
    • Dr Vanessa Puetz,
    • Dr Amy Palmer


  • Background

    Childhood maltreatment within the family home (physical, sexual, emotional abuse or neglect) remains a major public health and social welfare concern and has a profound impact on the individual and on society. Affected individuals are at an increased enduring risk of a range of psychiatric problems including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and conduct disorder (Gilbert et al, 2009).

    However, there is limited understanding of the underlying mechanisms by which maltreatment heightens risk of psychiatric outcomes.

    There is growing body of evidence that maltreatment is associated with structural and functional differences in the brain, which may underpin psychiatric vulnerability in adolescence and later life (McCrory, et al, 2011).

    By investigating cortical structural abnormalities associated with maltreatment in childhood we hope to uncover the possible pathways that lead from maltreatment to psychopathology.


  • Aims

    • The main objective of this project is to significantly further our understanding of the range of neurocognitive correlates and profiles of maltreatment, and relate these to future psychological functioning.

    • To understand the impact of maltreatment on distinct aspects of brain structure, including cortical thickness, cortical folding and surface area.

    • To investigate the common and distinct influences of maltreatment subtypes on cortical morphology and whether certain subtypes are characterised by differential morphological patterns across brain regions.

    • To examine whether the impact of maltreatment on cortical morphology differs for males and females. Whether structural differences at the neural level can be used as predictive biomarkers for psychiatric symptoms later in adolescence.
  • Methodology

    Children aged 10-14 years who are referred to social services with documented experiences of maltreatment or have been adopted following court proceedings were recruited.

    Controls participants were recruited from schools and youth clubs in the London area and carefully matched on age, gender, IQ and pubertal stage.

    Participants underwent a structural MRI scan and completed a battery of behavioural tasks and questionnaires.

    The structural scans are currently being analysed with voxel-based and surface-based neuroimaging analysis software and statistical software in order to explore associations between behavioural measures and morphological profiles.

  • Results

    The first study to be published from this project used surface-based methods to examine cortical thickness, surface area and local gyrification in a community sample of children with documented experiences of abuse (n=22) and a group of carefully matched peers (n=21) (Kelly, Viding, Wallace, Schaer, De Brito, Robustelli & McCrory, 2013). For the first time, structural abnormalities were detected in the anterior cingulate, entorhinal cortex and lingual gyrus in children exposed to maltreatment.

    Previous studies have only detected reduced volumetric differences in these regions in adults with childhood histories of abuse.

    This suggests that surface based methods are a more sensitive tool to detect the impact of early adversity, and capture developmental precursors of later volumetric differences.

    These fine-grained structural differences may underlie some of the gray matter volume reductions previously seen in maltreated samples (McCrory et al, 2011; DeBrito et al, 2011). The regions showing morphological differences in our maltreated sample have been implicated in several clinical disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

    We suggest that these differences may represent prodromal neural markers of future psychiatric risk. Further data collection is currently being undertaken and ongoing analyses exploring maltreatment subtype and sex differences.