Advancing our understanding of the impact of child maltreatment on brain structure

  • Research Project Team

    Philip Kelly Supervisors: Prof. Eamon McCrory & Prof. Essi Viding
  • Background

    Childhood maltreatment remains a major public health and social welfare concern and has a profound impact on the individual and on society. Maltreated 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 developmental vulnerability to these outcomes. There is growing body of evidence that maltreatment is associated with structural 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. The main objective of this project is to significantly further our understanding of the range of neurocognitive correlates and characteristics of maltreatment and how they relate to psychopathological symptomatology.
  • Aims

    To understand the impact of maltreatment on distinct aspects of brain structure, including cortical thickness, cortical folding and surface area. To investigate the influence of maltreatment characteristics on cortical morphology and whether certain subtypes, duration or severity of abuse are characterised by differential morphological patterns across brain regions. To examine whether the impact of maltreatment on cortical morphology differs for males and females.
  • Methodology

    Children aged 10-14 years who have been 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. Maltreated and non-maltreated children and adolescent underwent a structural MRI scan and completed a battery of behavioural tasks and questionnaires. Voxel based morphometry and surface based methods will be used to investigate cortical indices within maltreated children compared to non-maltreated peers and associations between behavioural functioning and cortical differences will be explored.
  • 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 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.

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