Decreased cortical representation of genital somatosensory field after childhood sexual abuse

Am J Psychiatry. 2013 Jun;170(6):616-23. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2013.12070950.


Objective: Sexual dysfunction is a common clinical symptom in women who were victims of childhood sexual abuse. The precise mechanism that mediates this association remains poorly understood. The authors evaluated the relationship between the experience of childhood abuse and neuroplastic thinning of cortical fields, depending on the nature of the abusive experience.

Method: The authors used MRI-based cortical thickness analysis in 51 medically healthy adult women to test whether different forms of childhood abuse were associated with cortical thinning in areas critical to the perception and processing of specific behavior implicated in the type of abuse.

Results: Exposure to childhood sexual abuse was specifically associated with pronounced cortical thinning in the genital representation field of the primary somatosensory cortex. In contrast, emotional abuse was associated with cortical thinning in regions relevant to self-awareness and self-evaluation.

Conclusions: Neural plasticity during development appears to result in cortical adaptation that may shield a child from the sensory processing of the specific abusive experience by altering cortical representation fields in a regionally highly specific manner. Such plastic reorganization may be protective for the child living under abusive conditions, but it may underlie the development of behavioral problems, such as sexual dysfunction, later in life.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Child Abuse / psychology
  • Child Abuse, Sexual* / psychology
  • Female
  • Genitalia, Female / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Middle Aged
  • Self Concept
  • Sexual Dysfunction, Physiological / etiology
  • Somatosensory Cortex / pathology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Young Adult