UO psychologists, in editorial, applaud new study on childhood maltreatment

Philip A. FisherEUGENE, Ore. -- (Dec. 5, 2011) -- A newly published study showing that symptoms of childhood maltreatment can reduce the amount of gray matter in the brain -- even in victims displaying no symptoms -- breaks new ground with potential ramifications for intervention and treatment, say two University of Oregon psychologists.

The later emergence of evidence of childhood traumas -- specifically physical abuse, physical neglect and emotional neglect -- in adolescents who did not meet criteria for a mental health disorder is "perhaps the most noteworthy characteristic of the study," Philip A. Fisher and Jennifer H. Pfeifer wrote in an editorial that accompanied a study that appears in the December issue of the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Jennifer Pfeifer“The extensive scientific literature on child maltreatment has provided strong evidence of the globally negative effects of abuse, neglect, and emotional maltreatment on healthy development and of the remarkable resilience of individuals who manage to prosper even in the face of these adverse experiences,” Fisher and Pfeifer wrote.

Erin E. Edmiston, formerly of Yale University and now at Vanderbilt University, led the study involved. Edmiston and Yale colleagues, including corresponding author Dr. Hilary P. Blumberg, compiled data on 42 adolescents, ages 12 to 17, without a psychiatric diagnosis to examine the association between exposure to childhood maltreatment and cerebral gray matter volume abnormalities.

Participants were recruited from a sample of children identified at birth to be at high risk for child maltreatment, and additional participants were also recruited to allow for a sample of adolescents reporting a spectrum of maltreatment severity. Data were collected through a self-report questionnaire, and included questions related to five subtypes of child maltreatment: physical abuse, physical neglect, emotional abuse, emotional neglect, and sexual abuse.
Self-reported scores on the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire were associated with a negative correlation with cerebral gray matter volume in the prefrontal cortex, striatum, amygdala, sensory association cortices and cerebellum. The authors also found that self-reported physical abuse, physical neglect and emotional neglect subtypes of child maltreatment were all associated with reductions in gray matter volume of the rostral prefrontal cortex. No significant results were found for emotional abuse or for sexual abuse.

Fisher and Pfeifer wrote that the study “broke new ground in four important ways.” These include showing that cerebral gray matter volume decreases in adults and children, examining differences in gray matter according to subtypes of child maltreatment, analyzing differences in gray matter volume associated with male sex compared with female sex, and also conducting analysis of participants who do not meet criteria for a mental health disorder.

In males, the findings pointed to alterations in areas associated with impulse control. In females, areas involved in emotional reactivity and regulation were affected.

“Given the importance of the study by Edmiston et al, we believe that an expansion of research on the developmental neurobiology of CM [child maltreatment] subtypes is warranted,” the UO co-authors concluded. “Research in these areas has great potential to address the needs for more effective prevention and treatment programs for individuals with specific CM subtypes.”

Media Contacts: To reach Philip A. Fisher, professor of psychology and lead UO author on the editorial, contact Jim Barlow, director of science and research communications, 541-346-3481, jebarlow@uoregon.edu . The corresponding author on the research paper is Hilary P. Blumberg, M.D.; for an interview contact Bill Hathaway, 203-432-1322, william.hathaway@yale.edu