A multi-modal MRI analysis of brain structure and function in relation to OXT methylation in maltreated children and adolescents

Transl Psychiatry. 2021 Nov 18;11(1):589. doi: 10.1038/s41398-021-01714-y.


Child maltreatment dysregulates the brain's oxytocinergic system, resulting in dysfunctional attachment patterns. However, how the oxytocinergic system in children who are maltreated (CM) is epigenetically affected remains unknown. We assessed differences in salivary DNA methylation of the gene encoding oxytocin (OXT) between CM (n = 24) and non-CM (n = 31), alongside its impact on brain structures and functions using multi-modal brain imaging (voxel-based morphometry, diffusion tensor imaging, and task and resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging). We found that CM showed higher promoter methylation than non-CM, and nine CpG sites were observed to be correlated with each other and grouped into one index (OXTmi). OXTmi was significantly negatively correlated with gray matter volume (GMV) in the left superior parietal lobule (SPL), and with right putamen activation during a rewarding task, but not with white matter structures. Using a random forest regression model, we investigated the sensitive period and type of maltreatment that contributed the most to OXTmi in CM, revealing that they were 5-8 years of age and physical abuse (PA), respectively. However, the presence of PA (PA+) was meant to reflect more severe cases, such as prolonged exposure to multiple types of abuse, than the absence of PA. PA+ was associated with significantly greater functional connectivity between the right putamen set as the seed and the left SPL and the left cerebellum exterior. The results suggest that OXT promoter hypermethylation may lead to the atypical development of reward and visual association structures and functions, thereby potentially worsening clinical aspects raised by traumatic experiences.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Child
  • DNA Methylation
  • Diffusion Tensor Imaging*
  • Gray Matter / diagnostic imaging
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Oxytocin*


  • Oxytocin