Left amygdala structure mediates longitudinal associations between exposure to threat and long-term psychiatric symptomatology in youth

Hum Brain Mapp. 2022 Sep;43(13):4091-4102. doi: 10.1002/hbm.25904. Epub 2022 May 18.


Traumatic experiences during childhood can have profound effects on stress sensitive brain structures (e.g., amygdala and hippocampus) and the emergence of psychiatric symptoms. Recent theoretical and empirical work has delineated dimensions of trauma (i.e., threat and deprivation) as having distinct neural and behavioral effects, although there are few longitudinal examinations. A sample of 243 children and adolescents were followed for three time points, with each assessment approximately 1 year apart (ages 9-15 years at Time 1; 120 males). Participants or their caregiver reported on youths' threat exposure, perceived stress (Time 1), underwent a T1-weighted structural high-resolution MRI scan (Time 2), and documented their subsequent psychiatric symptoms later in development (Time 3). The primary findings indicate that left amygdala volume, in particular, mediated the longitudinal association between threat exposure and subsequent internalizing and externalizing symptomatology. Greater threat exposure related to reduced left amygdala volume, which in turn differentially predicted internalizing and externalizing symptoms. Decreased bilateral hippocampal volume was related to subsequently elevated internalizing symptoms. These findings suggest that the left amygdala is highly threat-sensitive and that stress-related alterations may partially explain elevated psychopathology in stress-exposed adolescents. Uncovering potential subclinical and/or preclinical predictive biomarkers is essential to understanding the emergence, progression, and eventual targeted treatment of psychopathology following trauma exposure.

Keywords: adolescence; amygdala; brain development; brain structure; trauma.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Amygdala* / diagnostic imaging
  • Child
  • Hippocampus / diagnostic imaging
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders* / diagnostic imaging