Childhood trauma is associated with reduced frontal gray matter volume: A large transdiagnostic structural MRI study

Marieke J. H. Begemann*, Maya J. L. Schutte, Edwin van Dellen, Lucija Abramovic, Marco P. Boks, Neeltje E. M. van Haren, Rene C. W. Mandl, Christiaan H. Vinkers, Marc M. Bohlken, Iris E. C. Sommer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Background Childhood trauma increases risk for psychopathology and cognitive impairment. Prior research mainly focused on the hippocampus and amygdala in single diagnostic categories. However, other brain regions may be impacted by trauma as well, and effects may be independent of diagnosis. This cross-sectional study investigated cortical and subcortical gray matter volume in relation to childhood trauma severity. Methods We included 554 participants: 250 bipolar-I patients, 84 schizophrenia-spectrum patients and 220 healthy individuals without a psychiatric history. Participants filled in the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire. Anatomical T1 MRI scans were acquired at 3T, regional brain morphology was assessed using Freesurfer. Results In the total sample, trauma-related gray matter reductions were found in the frontal lobe (β = -0.049, p = 0.008; q = 0.048), this effect was driven by the right medial orbitofrontal, paracentral, superior frontal regions and the left precentral region. No trauma-related volume reductions were observed in any other (sub)cortical lobes nor the hippocampus or amygdala, trauma-by-group (i.e. both patient groups and healthy subjects) interaction effects were absent. A categorical approach confirmed a pattern of more pronounced frontal gray matter reductions in individuals reporting multiple forms of trauma and across quartiles of cumulative trauma scores. Similar dose-response patterns were revealed within the bipolar and healthy subgroups, but did not reach significance in schizophrenia-spectrum patients. Conclusions Findings show that childhood trauma is linked to frontal gray matter reductions, independent of psychiatric morbidity. Our results indicate that childhood trauma importantly contributes to the neurobiological changes commonly observed across psychiatric disorders. Frontal volume alterations may underpin affective and cognitive disturbances observed in trauma-exposed individuals.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPsychological Medicine
Early online date2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2021

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