Neural Correlates of Physical Abuse in Childhood

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Childhood maltreatment is associated with impaired inhibition, attention, emotion processing and hypersensitivity to mistakes. This thesis includes a metaanalysis of published whole-brain voxel-based morphometry studies in childhood maltreatment to elucidate the most robust volumetric grey matter (GM) abnormalities and an fMRI study that examined the association between childhood (physical) abuse and brain functionality in the domains of inhibition, attention, error and emotion processing. The participants were medication naïve, drug-free young people and psychiatric comorbidities were controlled for by including a psychiatric control group.
Anisotropic effect size-signed differential mapping was used to conduct the meta-analysis. For the fMRI study, brain activation was compared between 23 ageand gender-matched young people who had experienced childhood (physical) abuse, 20 psychiatric controls matched for psychiatric diagnoses with the participants exposed to abuse and 27 healthy controls while they performed a tracking stop-signal task designed to elicit 50% inhibition failures, a parametrically modulated vigilance task and an emotion processing task.
The meta-analysis showed that the most consistent GM abnormalities in childhood maltreatment were in relatively late-developing ventrolateral prefrontallimbic- temporal regions. The participants who had experienced abuse showed hyperactivation in typical error processing regions of the dorsomedial frontal cortex which was abuse-specific relative to healthy and psychiatric controls. No group differences in activation were observed for successful inhibition. The participants with a history of abuse exhibited reduced activation in typical dorsal and ventral frontostriato- thalamo-cerebellar sustained attention regions relative to healthy controls during the most challenging attention condition only, and showed an abuse-specific linear trend of decreasing activation with increasing attention loads in these regions. They also demonstrated abuse-specific hyperactivation of classical fear processing regions of ventromedial prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices to fearful faces and in fronto-striato-temporo-limbic regions to neutral faces relative to non-maltreated controls. The findings suggest an environmentally triggered disturbance in the normal development of these cognitive and affect networks as a consequence of childhood abuse.
Date of Award2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorKatya Rubia (Supervisor) & Mitul Mehta (Supervisor)

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