Amygdala activation in maltreated children during pre-attentive emotional processing

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Abstract

Background

Childhood adversity is associated with significantly increased risk of psychiatric disorder. To date, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies of children have mainly focused on institutionalisation and investigated conscious processing of affect.

Aims

To investigate neural response to pre-attentively presented affect cues in a community sample of children with documented experiences of maltreatment in the home.

Method

A masked dot-probe paradigm involving pre-attentive presentation of angry, happy and neutral facial expressions was employed. Eighteen maltreated children were compared with 23 carefully matched non-maltreated peers.

Results

Increased neural response was observed in the right amygdala for pre-attentively presented angry and happy faces in maltreated v. non-maltreated children. Level of amygdala activation was negatively associated with age at onset for several abuse subtypes.

Conclusions

Maltreatment is associated with heightened neural response to positive and negative facial affect, even to stimuli outside awareness. This may represent a latent neural risk factor for future psychiatric disorder.

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