Childhood Maltreatment Changes Cortical Network Architecture and May Raise Risk for Substance Use

Childhood maltreatment alters children’s brain development in ways that may increase their risk for substance use and other mental disorders in adulthood. In a NIDA-supported study, researchers found that young adults who had been maltreated as children differed from others who had not been maltreated in the connectivity of nine cortical regions. The differences could compromise the maltreated group’s basic social perceptual skills, ability to maintain a healthy balance between introversion and extroversion, and ability to self-regulate their emotions and behavior.

Dr. Martin Teicher and colleagues at McLean Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and Northeastern University, performed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) on 265 young adults, ages 18 to 25. Based on the young people’s responses on a battery of screening instruments, including the Traumatic Antecedents Interview and the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire, the researchers determined that 123 had experienced physical or emotional abuse, neglect, or sexual abuse as children.

Increased centrality of the anterior insula may lead to more intense craving for drugs coupled with diminished insight into the consequences of such use. Decreased centrality of the anterior cingulate may lead to reduced ability to control impulses or to make appropriate decisions based on past outcomes,” says Dr. Teicher.

This indicates that the altered cortical connectivity in maltreated individuals may put them at much greater risk for addiction if they start down the road of drug use.”

The researchers also noted that the right precuneus, a region associated with self-centered thinking, had high centrality and rich club membership in the maltreated study participants but not in the controls. In contrast, the middle frontal gyrus, which is implicated in working memory, attention, and self-knowledge had decreased centrality among maltreated participants. This region was also not a rich club member in the maltreated participants, although it was in the controls. Those who were maltreated also showed decreased centrality compared with those who were not maltreated in the:

The study’s findings suggest that childhood maltreatment is a severe stressor that alters trajectories of brain development.

This study was supported by NIH grants.


Teicher, M.H.; Anderson, C.M.; Ohashi, K. et al. Childhood maltreatment: altered network centrality of cingulate, precuneus, temporal pole and insula. Biological Psychiatry. 76(4):297-305, 2014.

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