Hippocampal and parahippocampal volumes vary by sex and traumatic life events in children

Hippocampal and parahippocampal volumes vary by sex and traumatic life events in children

J Psychiatry Neurosci 2020;45(4):288-297 | PDF

Amy S. Badura-Brack, PhD; Mackenzie S. Mills, BA; Christine M. Embury, MA; Maya M. Khanna, PhD; Alicia Klanecky Earl, PhD; Julia M. Stephen, PhD; Yu-Ping Wang, PhD; Vince D. Calhoun, PhD; Tony W. Wilson, PhD

Background: Childhood trauma is reliably associated with smaller hippocampal volume in adults; however, this finding has not been shown in children, and even less is known about how sex and trauma interact to affect limbic structural development in children.

Methods: Typically developing children aged 9 to 15 years who completed a trauma history questionnaire and structural T1-weighted MRI were included in this study (n = 172; 85 female, 87 male). All children who reported 4 or more traumas (n = 36) composed the high trauma group, and all children who reported 3 or fewer traumas (n = 136) composed the low trauma group. Using multivariate analysis of covariance, we compared FreeSurfer-derived structural MRI volumes (normalized by total intracranial volume) of the amygdalar, hippocampal and parahippocampal regions by sex and trauma level, controlling for age and study site.

Results: We found a significant sex × trauma interaction, such that girls with high trauma had greater volumes than boys with high trauma. Follow-up analyses indicated significantly increased volumes for girls and generally decreased volumes for boys, specifically in the hippocampal and parahippocampal regions for the high trauma group; we observed no sex differences in the low trauma group. We noted no interaction effect for the amygdalae.

Limitations: We assessed a community sample and did not include a clinical sample. We did not collect data about the ages at which children experienced trauma.

Conclusion: Results revealed that psychological trauma affects brain development differently in girls and boys. These findings need to be followed longitudinally to elucidate how structural differences progress and contribute to well-known sex disparities in psychopathology.


Submitted Jan. 24, 2019; Revised Oct. 12, 2019; Accepted Nov. 3, 2019; Published online Feb. 20, 2020

Affiliations: From the Department of Psychological Science, Creighton University, Omaha, NE (Badura-Brack, Mills, Khanna, Klanecky Earl); the Department of Neurological Sciences, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, NE (Embury, Wilson); the Department of Psychology, University of Nebraska at Omaha, Omaha, NE (Embury); the Mind Research Network, Albuquerque, NM (Stephen, Calhoun); and the Department of Biomedical Engineering, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA (Wang).

Funding: This study was funded by At Ease USA, the National Science Foundation (#1539067), and the National Institute of Mental Health (R01-MH121101)

Competing interests: None declared.

Contributors: A. Badura-Brack, M. Khanna, A. Klanecky Earl, J. Stephen, Y.-P. Wang, V. Calhoun and T. Wilson designed the study. A. Badura-Brack, M. Mills, C. Embury, J. Stephen, V. Calhoun and T. Wilson acquired the data, which A. Badura-Brack, C. Embury, M. Khanna and T. Wilson analyzed. A. Badura-Brack, M. Mills and A. Klanecky Earl wrote the article, which all authors reviewed. All authors approved the final version for publication and can certify that no other individuals not listed as authors have made substantial contributions to the paper.

DOI: 10.1503/jpn.190013

Correspondence to: A. Badura-Brack, Creighton University, Department of Psychological Science, 2500 California Plaza, Omaha, NE 68178-0321; amybadurabrack@creighton.edu