Childhood maltreatment and psychopathology affect brain development during adolescence

J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2013 Sep;52(9):940-952.e1. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2013.06.007.


Objective: The hippocampus and amygdala have received much attention with regard to the deleterious effects of childhood maltreatment. However, it is not known if and when these effects emerge during adolescence and whether comorbid psychopathology is more likely to explain these effects. This study investigated whether childhood maltreatment was associated with hippocampal and amygdala development from early to midadolescence and whether the experience of psychopathology during this period mediated the relation.

Method: One hundred seventeen (60 male) adolescents, recruited as part of a broader adolescent development study, participated in magnetic resonance imaging assessments during early and midadolescence (mean age at baseline 12.62 years, SD 0.44 years; mean follow-up period 3.78 years, SD 0.20 years), and completed self-report measurements of childhood maltreatment and diagnostic interviews assessing DSM-IV mental disorders.

Results: Childhood maltreatment was associated with larger baseline left hippocampal volumes and retarded growth of the left amygdala over time and was indirectly associated, through the experience of psychopathology, with retarded growth of the left hippocampus and accelerated growth of the left amygdala over time. Exploratory cortical analysis showed that maltreatment influenced thickening of the superior parietal region through the experience of psychopathology.

Conclusions: Childhood maltreatment was associated with altered brain development during adolescence. The experience of Axis I psychopathology during adolescence may be one mechanism by which childhood maltreatment has continuing effects on brain development during the adolescent years. These findings highlight the importance of early intervention for individuals who have experienced childhood maltreatment.

Keywords: adolescence; amygdala; brain development; hippocampus; maltreatment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Amygdala / pathology
  • Amygdala / physiopathology*
  • Cerebral Cortex / pathology
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Child
  • Child Abuse / diagnosis*
  • Child Abuse / psychology*
  • Dominance, Cerebral / physiology
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Hippocampus / pathology
  • Hippocampus / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / diagnosis
  • Mental Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Mental Disorders / psychology*
  • Organ Size / physiology
  • Psychopathology