The neurobiological consequences of early stress and childhood maltreatment

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2003 Jan-Mar;27(1-2):33-44. doi: 10.1016/s0149-7634(03)00007-1.


Early severe stress and maltreatment produces a cascade of neurobiological events that have the potential to cause enduring changes in brain development. These changes occur on multiple levels, from neurohumoral (especially the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal [HPA] axis) to structural and functional. The major structural consequences of early stress include reduced size of the mid-portions of the corpus callosum and attenuated development of the left neocortex, hippocampus, and amygdala. Major functional consequences include increased electrical irritability in limbic structures and reduced functional activity of the cerebellar vermis. There are also gender differences in vulnerability and functional consequences. The neurobiological sequelae of early stress and maltreatment may play a significant role in the emergence of psychiatric disorders during development.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Biological Evolution
  • Brain / growth & development*
  • Brain / pathology
  • Child
  • Child Abuse*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Neurobiology / methods
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*