The association between latent trauma and brain structure in children


The developing brain is marked by high plasticity, which can lead to vulnerability to early life stressors. Previous studies indicate that childhood maltreatment is associated with structural aberrations across a number of brain regions. However, prior work is limited by small sample sizes, heterogeneous age groups, the examination of one structure in isolation, the confounding of different types of early life stressors, and not accounting for socioeconomic status. These limitations may contribute to high variability across studies. The present study aimed to investigate how trauma is specifically associated with cortical thickness and gray matter volume (GMV) differences by leveraging a large sample of children (N = 9270) from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive DevelopmentSM Study (ABCD Study®). A latent measure of trauma exposure was derived from DSM-5 traumatic events, and we related this measure of trauma to the brain using structural equation modeling. Trauma exposure was associated with thinner cortices in the bilateral superior frontal gyri and right caudal middle frontal gyrus (pfdr-values textless .001) as well as thicker cortices in the left isthmus cingulate and posterior cingulate (pfdr-values ≤ .027), after controlling age, sex, and race/ethnicity. Furthermore, trauma exposure was associated with smaller GMV in the right amygdala and right putamen (pfdr-values ≤ .048). Sensitivity analyses that controlled for income and parental education were largely consistent with the main findings for cortical thickness. These results suggest that trauma may be an important risk factor for structural aberrations, specifically for cortical thickness differences in frontal and cingulate regions in children.

Translational Psychiatry