The amygdala is vulnerable to stress-dependent disruptions in neural development. Animal models have shown that stress increases dendritic arborization leading to larger amygdala volumes. Human studies of early stress and amygdala volume, however, remain inconclusive. This study compared amygdala volume in adults with childhood maltreatment to that in healthy controls. Eighteen participants from a longitudinal cohort and 33 cross-sectional controls (17 M/34 F, 25.5±3.1 years) completed a structural magnetic resonance imagining scan and the Maltreatment and Abuse Chronology of Exposure scale. Random forest regression with conditional trees was used to assess relative importance of exposure to adversity at each age on amygdala, thalamic or caudate volume. Severity of exposure to adversity across age accounted for 27% of the variance in right amygdala volume. Peak sensitivity occurred at 10-11 years of age, and importance of exposure at this time was highly significant based on permutation tests (p=0.003). The regression model showed that exposure during this sensitive period resulted in steep dose-response function with maximal response to even modest levels of exposure. Subjects in the highest exposure quartile (MACE-11, range=11-54) had a 9.1% greater right amygdala volume than subjects in the lowest exposure quartile (MACE-11, ≤3.5). No associations emerged between age of exposure and volume of the left amygdala or bilateral caudate or thalamus. Severity of adversity experienced at age 10-11 contributed to larger right but not left amygdala volume in adulthood. Results provide preliminary evidence that the amygdala may have a developmental sensitive period in preadolescence.
Keywords: Abuse and neglect; Adversity; Amygdala; Early life stress; Maltreatment; Sensitive periods.
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