Are all threats equal? Associations of childhood exposure to physical attack versus threatened violence with preadolescent brain structure

Scott W. Delaney*, Andrea P. Cortes Hidalgo, Tonya White, Sebastien Haneuse, Kerry J. Ressler, Henning Tiemeier, Laura D. Kubzansky

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Abstract

Background: Neurodevelopmental studies of childhood adversity often define threatening experiences as those involving harm or the threat of harm. Whether effects differ between experiences involving harm (“physical attack”) versus the threat of harm alone (“threatened violence”) remains underexplored. We hypothesized that while both types of experiences would be associated with smaller preadolescent global and corticolimbic brain volumes, associations with physical attack would be greater. Methods: Generation R Study researchers (the Netherlands) acquired T1-weighted scans from 2905 preadolescent children, computed brain volumes using FreeSurfer, and asked mothers whether their children ever experienced physical attack (n = 202) or threatened violence (n = 335). Using standardized global (cortical, subcortical, white matter) and corticolimbic (amygdala, hippocampus, anterior cingulate cortex, orbitofrontal cortex) volumes, we fit confounder-adjusted models. Results: Physical attack was associated with smaller global volumes (βcortical=−0.14; 95% CI: −0.26, −0.02); βwhite matter= −0.16; 95% CI: − 0.28, − 0.03) and possibly some corticolimbic volumes, e.g., βamygdala/ICV-adjusted= −0.10 (95% CI: −0.21, 0.01). We found no evidence of associations between threatened violence and smaller volumes in any outcome; instead, such estimates were small, highly uncertain, and positive in direction. Conclusions: Experiences of physical attack and threatened violence may have quantitively different neurodevelopmental effects. Thus, differences between types of threatening experiences may be neurodevelopmentally salient.

Original languageEnglish
Article number101033
JournalDevelopmental Cognitive Neuroscience
Volume52
Early online date9 Nov 2021
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021

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