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Childhood Abuse Slows Maturity of Emotion Circuits in Girls, Study Finds

A study indicated that girls who have been abused exhibit a delayed structural maturation pattern related to emotion circuitry, which could be an adaptive strategy that improves threat generalization. Physical neglect, on the other hand, is linked to a larger pattern of advanced anatomical maturation across the brain.

Childhood Abuse Slows Maturity of Emotion Circuits in Girls, Study Finds
Image: Depicting a Child Abused Girl | InStyleHealth

"Childhood abuse is one of the most powerful risk factors for developing psychopathology, particularly in females," the researchers wrote. "Evidence implies that early-life adversity is linked to improved emotional processing brain circuits maturation."

Clinical assessments, abuse histories, and high-resolution T1-weighted structural magnetic resonance imaging were completed by 234 females (ages 8–18 years) from several sites. They were then divided into three groups: usually developing (no abuse/no diagnosis), resilient (abuse/no diagnosis), and vulnerable (abuse/current diagnosis) based on their abuse history and internalizing disorder diagnosis.

The researchers then used gray matter volume in whole-brain, emotion, and language circuit parcellations to train a layered generalization framework to predict chronological age using machine learning models of normative brain development. As markers of relative circuits maturation, they computed brain age gap estimations (BrainAGEs; anticipated age minus true chronological age).

Childhood abuse was linked to lower BrainAGE (delayed maturation) in emotion circuits, as well as delayed emotion circuit development. Increased hyperarousal symptoms were linked to brainAGE. Physical neglect throughout childhood, on the other hand, was linked to an increase in whole-brain BrainAGE (advanced maturation).

The neuronal contributions to the emotion circuits are particularly noteworthy. The lateral prefrontal, parietal, and insular cortices, as well as the hippocampus, showed differences between girls with and without an internalizing diagnosis.

The researchers also indicated that "the differential influence of fronto-parietal cortices and the hippocampus on emotion circuits maturity in resilient girls may represent neurodevelopmental markers of reduced psychiatric risk following abuse."

Source: Am J Psychiatry 2021;178:1026-1036

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