Preliminary evidence for white matter tract abnormalities in young adults exposed to parental verbal abuse

Biol Psychiatry. 2009 Feb 1;65(3):227-34. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2008.06.022. Epub 2008 Aug 9.


Background: Psychiatric sequelae of exposure to parental verbal abuse (PVA) appear to be comparable with that of nonfamilial sexual abuse and witnessing domestic violence. Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) was used to ascertain whether PVA was associated with abnormalities in white matter (WM) tract integrity.

Methods: 1271 healthy young adults were screened for exposure to childhood adversity. Diffusion tensor imaging was collected on 16 unmedicated subjects with history of high-level exposure to PVA but no other form of maltreatment (4 male/12 female subjects, mean age 21.9 +/- 2.4 years) and 16 healthy control subjects (5 male/11 female subjects, 21.0 +/- 1.6 years). Group differences in fractional anisotropy (FA), covaried by parental education and income, were assessed using tract-based spatial statistics (TBSS).

Results: Three WM tract regions had significantly reduced FA: 1) arcuate fasciculus in left superior temporal gyrus, 2) cingulum bundle by the posterior tail of the left hippocampus, and 3) the left body of the fornix. Fractional anisotropy in these areas was strongly associated with average PVA scores (r(s) = -.701, -.801, -.524, respectively) and levels of maternal verbal abuse. Across groups, FA in region 1 correlated with verbal IQ and verbal comprehension index. Fractional anisotropy in region 2 was inversely associated with ratings of depression, dissociation, and limbic irritability. Fractional anisotropy in region 3 was inversely correlated with ratings of somatization and anxiety.

Conclusions: Exposure to PVA may be associated with alteration in the integrity of neural pathways with implications for language development and psychopathology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Child
  • Child Abuse / psychology*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Diffusion Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Education
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality / physiology
  • Hippocampus / pathology
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Male
  • Maternal Behavior
  • Nerve Fibers / physiology
  • Neural Pathways / pathology*
  • Parents / psychology*
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Temporal Lobe / pathology
  • Young Adult