Objective: Childhood abuse represents one of the most potent risk factors for developing psychopathology, espe- cially in females. Evidence suggests that exposure to early-life adversity may be related to advanced maturation of emotion processing neural circuits. However, it remains unknown whether abuse is related to early circuit matura- tion and whether maturation patterns depend on the pres- ence of psychopathology.
Methods: A multisite sample of 234 girls (ages 8–18 years) completed clinical assessment, maltreatment histories, and high-resolution T1-weighted structural MRI. Girls were stratified by abuse history and internalizing disorder diag- nosis into typically developing (no abuse/no diagnosis), resilient (abuse/no diagnosis), and susceptible (abuse/ current diagnosis) groups. Machine learning models of nor- mative brain development were aggregated in a stacked generalization framework trained to predict chronological age using gray matter volume in whole-brain, emotion, and language circuit parcellations. Brain age gap estima- tions (BrainAGEs; predicted age minus true chronological age) were calculated as indices of relative circuit maturation.
Results: Childhood abuse was related to reduced Brain- AGE (delayed maturation) specific to emotion circuits. Delayed emotion circuit BrainAGE was further related to increased hyperarousal symptoms. Childhood physical neglect was associated with increased whole-brain BrainAGE (advanced maturation). Neural contributors to emotion circuit BrainAGE differed in girls with and with- out an internalizing diagnosis, especially in the lateral prefrontal, parietal, and insular cortices and the hippocampus.
Conclusions: Abuse exposure in girls is associated with a delayed structural maturation pattern specific to emotion circuitry, a potentially adaptive mechanism enhancing threat generalization. Physical neglect, on the other hand, is associated with a broader brain-wide pattern of advanced structural maturation. The differential influence of fronto- parietal cortices and the hippocampus on emotion circuit maturity in resilient girls may represent neurodeve- lopmental markers of reduced psychiatric risk following abuse.