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Biol Mood Anxiety Disord. 2014 Nov 13;4:12. doi: 10.1186/2045-5380-4-12. eCollection 2014.

Reduced hippocampal and medial prefrontal gray matter mediate the association between reported childhood maltreatment and trait anxiety in adulthood and predict sensitivity to future life stress.

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Laboratory of NeuroGenetics, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University, 417 Chapel Drive, Durham, NC 27708, USA.
Laboratory of NeuroGenetics, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University, 417 Chapel Drive, Durham, NC 27708, USA ; Center for Developmental Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 100 East Franklin Street, Suite 200 CB#8115, Chapel Hill, NC 27599, USA.



The experience of early life stress is a consistently identified risk factor for the development of mood and anxiety disorders. Preclinical research employing animal models of early life stress has made inroads in understanding this association and suggests that the negative sequelae of early life stress may be mediated by developmental disruption of corticolimbic structures supporting stress responsiveness. Work in humans has corroborated this idea, as childhood adversity has been associated with alterations in gray matter volumes of the hippocampus, amygdala, and medial prefrontal cortex. Yet, missing from this body of research is a full understanding of how these neurobiological vulnerabilities may mechanistically contribute to the reported link between adverse childhood experiences and later affective psychopathology.


Analyses revealed that self-reported childhood maltreatment was associated with reduced gray matter volumes within the medial prefrontal cortex and left hippocampus. Furthermore, reduced left hippocampal and medial prefrontal gray matter volume mediated the relationship between childhood maltreatment and trait anxiety. Additionally, individual differences in corticolimbic gray matter volume within these same structures predicted the anxious symptoms as a function of life stress 1 year after initial assessment.


Collectively, these findings provide novel evidence that reductions in corticolimbic gray matter, particularly within the hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex, are associated with reported childhood maltreatment and individual differences in adult trait anxiety. Furthermore, our results suggest that these structural alterations contribute to increased affective sensitivity to stress later in life in those that have experienced early adversity. More broadly, the findings contribute to an emerging literature highlighting the critical importance of early stress on the development of corticolimbic structures supporting adaptive functioning later in life.


Anxiety; Childhood maltreatment; Gray matter; Hippocampus; MRI; Medial prefrontal cortex; Stress

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