Abnormal structure of fear circuitry in pediatric post-traumatic stress disorder

Neuropsychopharmacology. 2015 Feb;40(3):537-45. doi: 10.1038/npp.2014.239. Epub 2014 Sep 12.


Structural brain studies of adult post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) show reduced gray matter volume (GMV) in fear regulatory areas including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and hippocampus. Surprisingly, neither finding has been reported in pediatric PTSD. One possibility is that they represent age-dependent effects that are not fully apparent until adulthood. In addition, lower-resolution MRI and image processing in prior studies may have limited detection of such differences. Here we examine fear circuitry GMV, including age-related differences, using higher-resolution MRI in pediatric PTSD vs healthy youth. In a cross-sectional design, 3 T anatomical brain MRI was acquired in 27 medication-free youth with PTSD and 27 healthy non-traumatized youth of comparable age, sex, and IQ. Voxel-based morphometry was used to compare GMV in a priori regions including the medial prefrontal cortex and amygdala/hippocampus. Compared with healthy youth, PTSD youth had reduced GMV but no age-related differences in anterior vmPFC (BA 10/11, Z=4.5), which inversely correlated with PTSD duration. In contrast, although there was no overall group difference in hippocampal volume, a group × age interaction (Z=3.6) was present in the right anterior hippocampus. Here, age positively predicted hippocampal volume in healthy youth but negatively predicted volume in PTSD youth. Within the PTSD group, re-experiencing symptoms inversely correlated with subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC, Z=3.7) and right anterior hippocampus (Z=3.5) GMV. Pediatric PTSD is associated with abnormal structure of the vmPFC and age-related differences in the hippocampus, regions important in the extinction and contextual gating of fear. Reduced anterior vmPFC volume may confer impaired recovery from illness, consistent with its role in the allocation of attentional resources. In contrast, individual differences in sgACC volume were associated with re-experiencing symptoms, consistent with the role of the sgACC in fear extinction. The negative relationship between age and hippocampal volume in youth with PTSD may suggest an ongoing neurotoxic process over development, which further contributes to illness expression. Future studies employing a longitudinal design would be merited to further explore these possibilities.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Aging / pathology*
  • Amygdala / pathology*
  • Atrophy / pathology
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Child
  • Fear*
  • Female
  • Gray Matter / pathology*
  • Hippocampus / pathology*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Neuroimaging
  • Prefrontal Cortex / pathology*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / pathology*