Objective: Harsh corporal punishment (HCP) during childhood is a chronic, developmental stressor associated with depression, aggression and addictive behaviors. Exposure to traumatic stressors, such as sexual abuse, is associated with alteration in brain structure, but nothing is known about the potential neurobiological consequences of HCP. The aim of this study was to investigate whether HCP was associated with discernible alterations in gray matter volume (GMV) using voxel-based morphometry (VBM).
Methods: 1455 young adults (18-25 years) were screened to identify 23 with exposure to HCP (minimum 3 years duration, 12 episodes per year, frequently involving objects) and 22 healthy controls. High-resolution T1-weighted MRI datasets were obtained using Siemens 3 T trio scanner.
Results: GMV was reduced by 19.1% in the right medial frontal gyrus (medial prefrontal cortex; MPFC, BA10) (P=0.037, corrected cluster level), by 14.5% in the left medial frontal gyrus (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex; DLPFC, BA9) (P=0.015, uncorrected cluster level) and by 16.9% in the right anterior cingulate gyrus (BA24) (P<0.001, uncorrected cluster level) of HCP subjects. There were significant correlations between GMV in these identified regions and performance IQ on the WAIS-III.
Conclusions: Exposing children to harsh HCP may have detrimental effects on trajectories of brain development. However, it is also conceivable that differences in prefrontal cortical development may increase risk of exposure to HCP.