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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Aug 23;108(34):14324-9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1105371108. Epub 2011 Aug 15.

Larger amygdala but no change in hippocampal volume in 10-year-old children exposed to maternal depressive symptomatology since birth.

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  • 1Mental Health Institute of University of Montreal, Hospital Louis H. Lafontaine, Montreal, QC, Canada H1N 3M5.


Maternal separation and poor maternal care in animals have been shown to have important effects on the developing hippocampus and amygdala. In humans, children exposed to abuse/maltreatment or orphanage rearing do not present changes in hippocampal volumes. However, children reared in orphanages present enlarged amygdala volumes, suggesting that the amygdala may be particularly sensitive to severely disturbed (i.e., discontinous, neglectful) care in infancy. Maternal depressive symptomatology has been associated with reductions in overall sensitivity to the infant, and with an increased rate of withdrawn, disengaged behaviors. To determine if poor maternal care associated with maternal depressive symptomatology has a similar pattern of association to the volumes of the hippocampus and amygdala in children, as is the case for severely disturbed infant care (orphanage rearing), we measured hippocampal and amygdala volumes as well as stress hormone (glucocorticoid) levels in children exposed (n = 17) or not (n = 21) to maternal depressive symptomatology since birth. Results revealed no group difference in hippocampal volumes, but larger left and right amygdala volumes and increased levels of glucocorticoids in the children of mothers presenting depressive symptomatology since birth. Moreover, a significant positive correlation was observed between mothers' mean depressive scores and amygdala volumes in their children. The results of this study suggest that amygdala volume in human children may represent an early marker of biological sensitivity to quality of maternal care.

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