Reduced fractional anisotropy in the visual limbic pathway of young adults witnessing domestic violence in childhood

Neuroimage. 2012 Jan 16;59(2):1071-9. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.09.033. Epub 2011 Oct 1.


Witnessing domestic violence (WDV) is a traumatic childhood experience associated with increased risk for depression, posttraumatic stress disorder and reduced IQ scores. Specific affects of WDV on brain development have not been assessed. We sought to ascertain whether WDV was associated with abnormalities in white matter (WM) tract integrity using diffusion tensor imaging (DTI). Twenty subjects who witnessed domestic violence (16F/4M, mean age 22.4 ± 2.48 years) but were not physically or sexually abused were compared to 27 healthy controls (19F/8M, 21.9 ± 1.97 years) without exposure to trauma or Axis I and II disorders. DTI images were acquired with a 3T Siemens Trio scanner. Group differences in fractional anisotropy (FA), covaried by age, gender, parental education, perceived financial sufficiency, IQ and degree of exposure to parental verbal aggression were assessed using tract-based spatial statistics (TBSS), which projects FA values onto an alignment-invariant fiber tract representation. FA values in the inferior longitudinal fasciculus of left lateral occipital lobe were significantly lower (P<0.05 corrected for multiple comparison) in the WDV group. FA values correlated inversely with ratings of depression, anxiety, somatization, 'limbic irritability' and neuropsychological measures of processing speed. Measures of radial but not axial diffusivity were affected suggesting alterations in myelination. Degree of FA reduction was associated with duration of witnessing interparental verbal aggression and with exposure between ages 7 and 13 years. The inferior longitudinal fasciculus connects occipital and temporal cortex and is the main component of the visual-limbic pathway that subserves emotional, learning and memory functions that are modality specific to vision. This finding is consistent with the hypothesis that exposure to childhood maltreatment is associated with alterations in fiber pathways that convey the adverse experience to frontal, temporal or limbic regions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anisotropy
  • Child, Preschool
  • Domestic Violence / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Limbic System / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Male
  • Memory, Long-Term*
  • Visual Pathways / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult