Childhood trauma and amygdala nuclei volumes in youth at risk for mental illness

Psychol Med. 2022 Apr;52(6):1192-1199. doi: 10.1017/S0033291720003177. Epub 2020 Sep 17.


Background: Adults with significant childhood trauma and/or serious mental illness may exhibit persistent structural brain changes within limbic structures, including the amygdala. Little is known about the structure of the amygdala prior to the onset of SMI, despite the relatively high prevalence of trauma in at-risk youth.

Methods: Data were gathered from the Canadian Psychiatric Risk and Outcome study. A total of 182 youth with a mean age of 18.3 years completed T1-weighted MRI scans along with clinical assessments that included questionnaires on symptoms of depression and anxiety. Participants also completed the Childhood Trauma and Abuse Scale. We used a novel subfield-specific amygdala segmentation workflow as a part of FreeSurfer 6.0 to examine amygdala structure.

Results: Participants with higher trauma scores were more likely to have smaller amygdala volumes, particularly within the basal regions. Among various types of childhood trauma, sexual and physical abuse had the largest effects on amygdala subregions. Abuse-related differences in the right basal region mediated the severity of depression and anxiety symptoms, even though no participants met criteria for clinical diagnosis at the time of assessment.

Conclusion: The experience of physical or sexual abuse may leave detectable structural alterations in key regions of the amygdala, potentially mediating the risk of psychopathology in trauma-exposed youth.

Keywords: Adolescence; amygdala; anxiety; clinical high risk; depression; risk; trauma.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences*
  • Amygdala / pathology
  • Anxiety / psychology
  • Canada
  • Child
  • Hippocampus / pathology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Mental Disorders*