Effects of stressful life events on human brain structure: a longitudinal voxel-based morphometry study

Stress. 2011 Mar;14(2):227-32. doi: 10.3109/10253890.2010.522279. Epub 2010 Oct 31.


Although stressful life events (SLEs) have been associated with an increased risk of illness and mental disorder, their impact on brain anatomy remains poorly understood. Using a longitudinal design, we tested the hypothesis that SLEs are significantly associated with changes in gray matter volume (GMV) in brain regions previously implicated in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in a group of clinically healthy adults. Magnetic resonance imaging was used to acquire an anatomical scan from 26 subjects (13 males and 13 females; mean age ± SD: 25.2 ± 4.3 years), with no psychiatric diagnosis, at two time points with a 3-month interval. Voxel-based morphometry was used to examine an association between SLEs and gray matter changes during this period. The number of SLEs was associated with a decrease in GMV in the anterior cingulate, hippocampus, and parahippocampal gyrus (p < 0.001). In contrast, there were no areas where the number of SLEs was associated with an increase in GMV. These results provide evidence that, in adults with no formal psychiatric diagnosis, SLEs are associated with GMV decreases in a subset of regions implicated in PTSD, and that these alterations can be observed within a period as short as 3 months.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Female
  • Gyrus Cinguli / pathology
  • Hippocampus / pathology
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Prefrontal Cortex / pathology
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / pathology