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Dev Sci. 2018 Nov 24:e12775. doi: 10.1111/desc.12775. [Epub ahead of print]

Evidence for a sensitive period in the effects of early life stress on hippocampal volume.

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Stanford University, Stanford, California.


Exposure to stress has been causally linked to changes in hippocampal volume (HV). Given that the hippocampus undergoes rapid changes in the first years of life, stressful experiences during this period may be particularly important in understanding individual differences in the development of the hippocampus. One hundred seventy-eight early adolescents (ages 9-13 years; 43% male) were interviewed regarding exposure to and age of onset of experiences of stress; the severity of each stressful event was rated by an objective panel. All participants underwent structural magnetic resonance imaging, from which HVs were automatically segmented. Without considering the age of onset for stressful experiences, there was a small but statistically significant negative association of stress severity with bilateral HV. When considering the age of onset, there was a moderate and significant negative association between stress severity during early childhood (through 5 years of age) and HV; there was no association between stress severity during later childhood (age 6 years and older) and HV. We provide evidence of a sensitive period through 5 years of age for the effects of life stress on HV in adolescence. It will be important in future research to elucidate how reduced HV stemming from early life stress may contribute to stress-related health outcomes.


adversity; early life stress; hippocampus; sensitive period


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