Background: Childhood sexual abuse (CSA) has been associated with alterations in brain morphology using region of interest analyses that have focused on stress-sensitive target regions. This study was designed to ascertain the effects on gray matter volume (GMV) of exposure to CSA in healthy young adult college students selected based on exposure history regardless of psychiatric outcome. Voxel-based morphometry (VBM) provided unbiased delineation of the most significantly affected brain regions.
Methods: High-resolution T1-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) datasets were obtained for 23 unmedicated female subjects with CSA and 14 healthy female control subjects of equivalent age and socioeconomic status with no history of trauma. Cortical surface-based analysis (FreeSurfer) was performed to verify VBM results.
Results: Gray matter volume was reduced by 12.6% and 18.1% in right and left primary visual (V1) and visual association cortices of abused subjects. This reduction was directly related to duration of CSA before age 12. Gray matter volume of left and right V1 correlated with measure of visual memory (r = .353, p = .032 and r = .448, p = .005). Cortical surface-based analysis indicated that GMV of abused subjects was reduced in the left fusiform (p = .004), left middle occipital (p = .04), and right lingual (p = .002) gyri.
Conclusions: Early visual experience exerts a strong influence on the developing mammalian visual cortex. Present findings indicate that exposure to CSA may also affect the development of this region and are apparent even in a population of subjects who are sufficiently healthy to matriculate.