Childhood maltreatment is a stressor that can lead to the development of behavior problems and affect brain structure and function. This review summarizes the current evidence for the effects of childhood maltreatment on behavior, cognition and the brain in adults and children. Neuropsychological studies suggest an association between child abuse and deficits in IQ, memory, working memory, attention, response inhibition and emotion discrimination. Structural neuroimaging studies provide evidence for deficits in brain volume, gray and white matter of several regions, most prominently the dorsolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortex but also hippocampus, amygdala, and corpus callosum (CC). Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) studies show evidence for deficits in structural interregional connectivity between these areas, suggesting neural network abnormalities. Functional imaging studies support this evidence by reporting atypical activation in the same brain regions during response inhibition, working memory, and emotion processing. There are, however, several limitations of the abuse research literature which are discussed, most prominently the lack of control for co-morbid psychiatric disorders, which make it difficult to disentangle which of the above effects are due to maltreatment, the associated psychiatric conditions or a combination or interaction between both. Overall, the better controlled studies that show a direct correlation between childhood abuse and brain measures suggest that the most prominent deficits associated with early childhood abuse are in the function and structure of lateral and ventromedial fronto-limbic brain areas and networks that mediate behavioral and affect control. Future, large scale multimodal neuroimaging studies in medication-naïve subjects, however, are needed that control for psychiatric co-morbidities in order to elucidate the structural and functional brain sequelae that are associated with early environmental adversity, independently of secondary co-morbid conditions.
Keywords: DTI; PTSD; child abuse; executive functions; fMRI; limbic system; maltreatment; prefrontal cortex.