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.
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