Background: Early life stress (ELS) is linked to adult psychopathology and may contribute to long-term brain alterations, as suggested by studies of women who suffered childhood sexual abuse. We examine whether reported adverse ELS defined as stressful and/or traumatic adverse childhood events (ACEs) is associated with smaller limbic and basal ganglia volumes.
Method: 265 healthy Australian men and women without psychopathology or brain disorders were studied. ACEs were assessed by the ELSQ and current emotional state by the DASS. Anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), hippocampus, amygdala, and caudate nucleus volumes were measured from T1-weighted MRI. Analyses examined ROI volumetric associations with reported ACEs and DASS scores.
Results: Participants with greater than two ACEs had smaller ACC and caudate nuclei than those without ACEs. A significant association between total ACEs and ROI volumes for these structures was observed. Regression analysis also revealed that ELS was more strongly associated than current emotional state (DASS) with these ROI volumes.
Conclusions: Reported ELS is associated with smaller ACC and caudate volumes, but not the hippocampal or amygdala volumes. The reasons for these brain effects are not entirely clear, but may reflect the influence of early stress and traumatic events on the developing brain.