Several studies have shown that childhood maltreatment is associated with structural changes in several brain regions. In this study, DeRosse and colleagues (2020) examined whether self-reported experience of childhood maltreatment is linked to the quality of the connections between two key areas of the brain involved in processing rewards (the orbitofrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens). A large group of adults (n=122) without current or a past history of mental health problems, underwent a Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) scan. This is a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) based technique used to get detailed information about the neural tissues though which messages pass between different areas of the brain. The researchers found that, after taking into account the effects of age and sex, a history of maltreatment was associated with poorer structural connections between the nucleus accumbens with the orbitofrontal cortex. Moreover, subsequent analyses showed that the overall severity of childhood trauma, rather than a specific type of maltreatment, drove this result. These findings indicate that early experiences of maltreatment may reduce the quality of the neural connections between brain regions that are central to reward processing. This is consistent with behavioural studies and with the functional neuroimaging literature which shows that a history of abuse and neglect is associated with alterations in brain activity during reward processing and associative learning. This study, therefore, contributes to the growing literature which suggests that early adverse experiences can lead to long-lasting alterations in reward processing, with potential impact on physical and mental health outcomes.
DeRosse, P., Ikuta, T., Karlsgodt, K. H., Szeszko, P.R., & Malhotra, A. K. (2020). History of childhood maltreatment is associated with reduced fractional anisotropy of the accumbofrontal ‘reward’ tract in healthy adults. Brain Imaging and Behavior, 14, 353-361. doi:10.1007/s11682-020-00265-y