Intergenerational Effect of Maternal Exposure to Childhood Maltreatment on Newborn Brain Anatomy

Biol Psychiatry. 2018 Jan 15;83(2):120-127. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2017.07.009. Epub 2017 Jul 21.


Background: Childhood maltreatment (CM) confers deleterious long-term consequences, and growing evidence suggests some of these effects may be transmitted across generations. We examined the intergenerational effect of maternal CM exposure on child brain structure and also addressed the hypothesis that this effect may start during the child's intrauterine period of life.

Methods: A prospective longitudinal study was conducted in a clinical convenience sample of 80 mother-child dyads. Maternal CM exposure was assessed using the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire. Structural magnetic resonance imaging was employed to characterize newborn global and regional brain (tissue) volumes near the time of birth.

Results: CM exposure was reported by 35% of the women. Maternal CM exposure was associated with lower child intracranial volume (F1,70 = 6.84, p = .011), which was primarily due to a global difference in cortical gray matter (F1,70 = 9.10, p = .004). The effect was independent of potential confounding variables, including maternal socioeconomic status, obstetric complications, obesity, recent interpersonal violence, pre- and early postpartum stress, gestational age at birth, infant sex, and postnatal age at magnetic resonance imaging scan. The observed group difference between offspring of CM-exposed mothers versus nonexposed mothers was 6%.

Conclusions: These findings represent the first report to date associating maternal CM exposure with variation in newborn brain structure. These observations support our hypothesis of intergenerational transmission of the effects of maternal CM exposure on child brain development and suggest this effect may originate during the child's intrauterine period of life, which may have downstream neurodevelopmental consequences.

Keywords: Brain development; Childhood maltreatment; Gray matter volume; Intergenerational transmission; Newborn; Pregnancy.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Adult Survivors of Child Abuse*
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Maternal Exposure*
  • Mother-Child Relations*
  • Mothers
  • Organ Size
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / diagnostic imaging*
  • Prospective Studies