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Biol Psychiatry. 2013 Dec 1;74(11):845-52. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.06.020. Epub 2013 Aug 13.

Cortical thickness, surface area, and gyrification abnormalities in children exposed to maltreatment: neural markers of vulnerability?

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Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, University College London, London; The Anna Freud Centre, London, London.



Childhood maltreatment has been shown to significantly elevate the risk of psychiatric disorder. Previous neuroimaging studies of children exposed to maltreatment have reported atypical neural structure in several regions, including the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobes. These studies have exclusively investigated volumetric differences rather than focusing on genetically and developmentally distinct indices of brain structure.


Here we used surface-based methods to examine cortical thickness, surface area, and local gyrification in a community sample of children with documented experiences of abuse (n = 22) and a group of carefully matched nonmaltreated peers (n = 21).


Reduced cortical thickness in the maltreated compared with the nonmaltreated group was observed in an extended cluster that incorporated the anterior cingulate, superior frontal gyrus, and orbitofrontal cortex. In addition, reduced cortical surface area was observed within the parcellated regions of the left middle temporal area and lingual gyrus. Local gyrification deficits within the maltreated group were located within two clusters, the lingual gyrus and the insula extending into pars opercularis.


This is the first time structural abnormalities in the anterior cingulate and lingual gyrus have been detected in children exposed to maltreatment. Surface-based methods seem to capture subtle, previously undetected, morphological abnormalities associated with maltreatment. We suggest that these approaches detect developmental precursors of brain volume differences seen in adults with histories of abuse. Because the reported regions are implicated in several clinical disorders, they might constitute biological markers of vulnerability, linking exposure to early adversity and psychiatric risk.


Child abuse; cortical thickness; local gyrification; maltreatment; psychopathology; surface area

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