Hippocampal and parahippocampal volumes vary by sex and traumatic life events in children

J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2020 Jul 1;45(4):288-297. doi: 10.1503/jpn.190013.


Background: Childhood trauma is reliably associated with smaller hippocampal volume in adults; however, this finding has not been shown in children, and even less is known about how sex and trauma interact to affect limbic structural development in children.

Methods: Typically developing children aged 9 to 15 years who completed a trauma history questionnaire and structural T1-weighted MRI were included in this study (n = 172; 85 female, 87 male). All children who reported 4 or more traumas (n = 36) composed the high trauma group, and all children who reported 3 or fewer traumas (n = 136) composed the low trauma group. Using multivariate analysis of covariance, we compared FreeSurfer-derived structural MRI volumes (normalized by total intracranial volume) of the amygdalar, hippocampal and parahippocampal regions by sex and trauma level, controlling for age and study site.

Results: We found a significant sex × trauma interaction, such that girls with high trauma had greater volumes than boys with high trauma. Follow-up analyses indicated significantly increased volumes for girls and generally decreased volumes for boys, specifically in the hippocampal and parahippocampalregions for the high trauma group; we observed no sex differences in the low trauma group. We noted no interaction effect for the amygdalae.

Limitations: We assessed a community sample and did not include a clinical sample. We did not collect data about the ages at which children experienced trauma.

Conclusion: Results revealed that psychological trauma affects brain development differently in girls and boys. These findings need to be followed longitudinally to elucidate how structural differences progress and contribute to well-known sex disparities in psychopathology.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences / psychology*
  • Amygdala / diagnostic imaging
  • Amygdala / pathology
  • Bereavement
  • Child
  • Exposure to Violence / psychology
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / diagnostic imaging*
  • Hippocampus / pathology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Organ Size
  • Parahippocampal Gyrus / diagnostic imaging*
  • Parahippocampal Gyrus / pathology
  • Psychological Trauma / diagnostic imaging*
  • Psychological Trauma / pathology
  • Psychological Trauma / psychology
  • Sex Factors
  • Violence / psychology