Interaction of developmental factors and ordinary stressful life events on brain structure in adults

Neuroimage Clin. 2021:30:102683. doi: 10.1016/j.nicl.2021.102683. Epub 2021 Apr 21.


An interplay of early environmental and genetic risk factors with recent stressful life events (SLEs) in adulthood increases the risk for adverse mental health outcomes. The interaction of early risk and current SLEs on brain structure has hardly been investigated. Whole brain voxel-based morphometry analysis was performed in N = 786 (64.6% female, mean age = 33.39) healthy subjects to identify correlations of brain clusters with commonplace recent SLEs. Genetic and early environmental risk factors, operationalized as those for severe psychopathology (i.e., polygenic scores for neuroticism, childhood maltreatment, urban upbringing and paternal age) were assessed as modulators of the impact of SLEs on the brain. SLEs were negatively correlated with grey matter volume in the left medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC, FWE p = 0.003). This association was present for both, positive and negative, life events. Cognitive-emotional variables, i.e., neuroticism, perceived stress, trait anxiety, intelligence, and current depressive symptoms did not account for the SLE-mOFC association. Further, genetic and environmental risk factors were not correlated with grey matter volume in the left mOFC cluster and did not affect the association between SLEs and left mOFC grey matter volume. The orbitofrontal cortex has been implicated in stress-related psychopathology, particularly major depression in previous studies. We find that SLEs are associated with this area. Important early life risk factors do not interact with current SLEs on brain morphology in healthy subjects.

Keywords: Magnetic resonance imaging; Orbitofrontal cortex; Stressful life events; Voxel-based morphometry.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Depressive Disorder, Major*
  • Female
  • Gray Matter / diagnostic imaging
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events*
  • Male
  • Stress, Psychological