Background: Previous investigations suggest that maltreated children with a diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) evidence alterations of biological stress systems. Increased levels of catecholaminergic neurotransmitters and steroid hormones during traumatic experiences in childhood could conceivably adversely affect brain development.
Methods: In this study, 44 maltreated children and adolescents with PTSD and 61 matched controls underwent comprehensive psychiatric and neuropsychological assessments and an anatomical magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scan.
Results: PTSD subjects had smaller intracranial and cerebral volumes than matched controls. The total midsagittal area of corpus callosum and middle and posterior regions remained smaller; while right, left, and total lateral ventricles were proportionally larger than controls, after adjustment for intracranial volume. Brain volume robustly and positively correlated with age of onset of PTSD trauma and negatively correlated with duration of abuse. Symptoms of intrusive thoughts, avoidance, hyperarousal or dissociation correlated positively with ventricular volume, and negatively with brain volume and total corpus callosum and regional measures. Significant gender by diagnosis effect revealed greater corpus callosum area reduction in maltreated males with PTSD and a trend for greater cerebral volume reduction than maltreated females with PTSD. The predicted decrease in hippocampal volume seen in adult PTSD was not seen in these subjects.
Conclusions: These data suggest that the overwhelming stress of maltreatment experiences in childhood is associated with adverse brain development.