Differential effects of childhood neglect and abuse during sensitive exposure periods on male and female hippocampus

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The hippocampus is a highly stress susceptible structure and hippocampal abnormalities have been reported in a host of psychiatric disorders including major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The hippocampus appears to be particularly susceptible to early life stress with a graded reduction in volume based on number of types (multiplicity) or severity of maltreatment. We assessed whether the most important predictors of adult hippocampal volume were multiplicity, severity or duration of exposure or timing of maltreatment during developmental sensitive periods. 3T MRIs were collected on 336 unmedicated, right-handed subjects (132M/204F, 18–25 years). Exposure to broad categories of abuse and neglect during each year of childhood were assessed using the Maltreatment and Abuse Chronology of Exposure scale and evaluated using artificial intelligence and predictive analytics. Male hippocampal volume was predicted by neglect, but not abuse, up through 7 years of age. Female hippocampal volume was predicted by abuse, but not neglect, at 10, 11, 15 and 16 years. Exposure at peak age had greater predictive importance than multiplicity, severity or duration. There were also marked gender differences in subfields and portions (head, body or tail) affected by exposure. History and symptoms of major depression, PTSD or anxiety disorders were not predictive of hippocampal volume once maltreatment was accounted for. Neglect appears to foster inadequate hippocampal development in males while abuse appears to produce a stress-related deficit in females. Studies assessing hippocampal volume in psychiatric disorders need to control for the gender-specific effects of abuse and neglect.

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