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Rev Bras Psiquiatr. 2008 Mar;30(1):60-8.

Psychobiology of childhood maltreatment: effects of allostatic load?

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Psychology Department, Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, RS, Brazil.



Facing an adverse physical or psychosocial situation, an individual is forced to adapt in order to survive. Allostasis is the term used to refer to adapting processes used to maintain the stability of an organism through active processes. When allostatic response is excessive or inefficient, the organism develops an allostatic load. The cascade of molecular and neurobiological effects associated with childhood abuse and neglect could be an example of allostatic response that could precipitate allostatic load in organism still vulnerable during its development. This article reviews the psychobiological consequences related to childhood abuse and neglect.


A selective review with a systematic procedure was performed to investigate studies showing explicit association between childhood maltreatment and psychobiological/neurobiological consequences. We searched electronic database MedLine-PubMed to identify English-language articles from 1990 to 2007.


From 115 articles we selected 55 studies from MedLine and 30 from their reference lists, in a total of 85 articles (JCR IF range: 1-31.4; median: 5.88). Only 29 studies showed direct and explicit association between them.


Structural consequences of childhood maltreatment include disruptive development of corpus callosum, left neocortex, hippocampus, and amygdale; functional consequences include increased electrical irritability in limbic areas, frontal lobe dysfunctions and reduced functional activity of the cerebellar vermis; and neurohumoral consequences include the reprogramming activity of hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and subsequently the stress response.

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