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Neural effects of social environmental stress – an activation likelihood estimation meta-analysis

  • O. Mothersill (a1) (a2) and G. Donohoe (a1) (a2)



Social environmental stress, including childhood abuse and deprivation, is associated with increased rates of psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and depression. However, the neural mechanisms mediating risk are not completely understood. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies have reported effects of social environmental stress on a variety of brain regions, but interpretation of results is complicated by the variety of environmental risk factors examined and different methods employed.


We examined brain regions consistently showing differences in blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) response in individuals exposed to higher levels of environmental stress by performing a coordinate-based meta-analysis on 54 functional MRI studies using activation likelihood estimation (ALE), including an overall sample of 3044 participants. We performed separate ALE analyses on studies examining adults (mean age ⩾18 years) and children/adolescents (mean age <18 years) and a contrast analysis comparing the two types of study.


Across both adult and children/adolescent studies, ALE meta-analysis revealed several clusters in which differences in BOLD response were associated with social environmental stress across multiple studies. These clusters incorporated several brain regions, among which the right amygdala was most frequently implicated.


These findings suggest that a variety of social environmental stressors is associated with differences in the BOLD response of specific brain regions such as the right amygdala in both children/adolescents and adults. What remains unknown is whether these environmental stressors have differential effects on treatment response in these brain regions.


Corresponding author

*Address for correspondence: G. Donohoe, School of Psychology, National University of Ireland Galway, University Road, Galway, Republic of Ireland. (Email:


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