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Childhood maltreatment is robustly associated with increased risk of poor mental health outcome and changes in brain function. The authors investigated whether childhood experience of abuse (e.g. physical, emotional and sexual abuse) and neglect (physical and emotional deprivation) was differentially associated with neural reactivity to threat.
Participants were drawn from an existing study and allocated to one of four groups based on self-report of childhood maltreatment experience: individuals with childhood abuse experiences (n = 70); individuals with childhood neglect experiences (n = 87); individuals with combined experience of childhood abuse and neglect (n = 50); and non-maltreated individuals (n = 207) propensity score matched (PSM) on gender, age, IQ, psychopathology and SES. Neural reactivity to facial cues signalling threat was compared across groups, allowing the differential effects associated with particular forms of maltreatment experience to be isolated.
Brain imaging analyses indicated that while childhood abuse was associated with heightened localised threat reactivity in ventral amygdala, experiences of neglect were associated with heightened reactivity in a distributed cortical fronto-parietal network supporting complex social and cognitive processing as well as in the dorsal amygdala. Unexpectedly, combined experiences of abuse and neglect were associated with hypo-activation in several higher-order cortical regions as well as the amygdala.
Different forms of childhood maltreatment exert differential effects in neural threat reactivity: while the effects of abuse are more focal, the effects of neglect and combined experiences of abuse are more distributed. These findings are relevant for understanding the range of psychiatric outcomes following childhood maltreatment and have implications for intervention.
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