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Examination of the association between exposure to childhood maltreatment and brain structure in young adults: a machine learning analysis

Abstract

Exposure to maltreatment during childhood is associated with structural changes throughout the brain. However, the structural differences that are most strongly associated with maltreatment remain unclear given the limited number of whole-brain studies. The present study used machine learning to identify if and how brain structure distinguished young adults with and without a history of maltreatment. Young adults (ages 18–21, n = 384) completed an assessment of childhood trauma exposure and a structural MRI as part of the IMAGEN study. Elastic net regularized regression was used to identify the structural features that identified those with a history of maltreatment. A generalizable model that included 7 cortical thicknesses, 15 surface areas, and 5 subcortical volumes was identified (area under the receiver operating characteristic curve = 0.71, p < 0.001). Those with a maltreatment history had reduced surface areas and cortical thicknesses primarily in fronto-temporal regions. This group also had larger cortical thicknesses in occipital regions and surface areas in frontal regions. The results suggest childhood maltreatment is associated with multiple measures of structure throughout the brain. The use of a large sample without exposure to adulthood trauma provides further evidence for the unique contribution of childhood trauma to brain structure. The identified regions overlapped with regions associated with psychopathology in adults with maltreatment histories, which offers insights as to how these disorders manifest.

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Fig. 1: Importance plot of features involved in classification.
Fig. 2: Brain regions involved in classification of those with a history of maltreatment.

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Authors

Contributions

MP: conceptualized the study, conducted the primary analyses, and drafted the majority of the paper. MA: contributed to the conceptualization of the study, provided critical resources for interpreting the data, and assisted in drafting the paper. S. Hahn: contributed to the analyses and creating figures for the paper, and provided substantial guidance on the analysis. ACJ: provided and assisted in analyzing the data and assisted in drafting the paper. NF: contributed to the conceptualization of the study, provided critical resources for interpreting the data, and assisted in drafting the paper. ZMFB: critically revised the paper. ACL: critically revised the paper. KS-C: critically revised the paper. BC: critically revised the paper, provided analytic resources, and aided in interpreting the paper. AP: critically revised the paper and provided meaningful interpretation of the data. KP: critically revised the paper. NA: provided substantial guidance on the analysis. TB: reviewed early conceptualization of the study, reviewed the paper, and offered final approval of the version to be published. ALWB: reviewed early conceptualization of the study, reviewed the paper, and offered final approval of the version to be published. EBQ: reviewed early conceptualization of the study, reviewed the paper, and offered final approval of the version to be published. SD: reviewed early conceptualization of the study, reviewed the paper, and offered final approval of the version to be published. HF: reviewed early conceptualization of the study, reviewed the paper, and offered final approval of the version to be published. AG: reviewed early conceptualization of the study, reviewed the paper, and offered final approval of the version to be published. PG: reviewed early conceptualization of the study, reviewed the paper, and offered final approval of the version to be published. AH: reviewed early conceptualization of the study, reviewed the paper, and offered final approval of the version to be published. BI: reviewed early conceptualization of the study, reviewed the paper, and offered final approval of the version to be published. J-LM: reviewed early conceptualization of the study, reviewed the paper, and offered final approval of the version to be published. M-LP: reviewed early conceptualization of the study, reviewed the paper, and offered final approval of the version to be published. EA: reviewed early conceptualization of the study, reviewed the paper, and offered final approval of the version to be published. FN: reviewed early conceptualization of the study, reviewed the paper, and offered final approval of the version to be published. DPO: reviewed early conceptualization of the study, reviewed the paper, and offered final approval of the version to be published. LP: reviewed early conceptualization of the study, reviewed the paper, and offered final approval of the version to be published. S. Hohmann: reviewed early conceptualization of the study, reviewed the paper, and offered final approval of the version to be published. JHF: reviewed early conceptualization of the study, reviewed the paper, and offered final approval of the version to be published. MNS: reviewed early conceptualization of the study, reviewed the paper, and offered final approval of the version to be published. HW: reviewed early conceptualization of the study, reviewed the paper, and offered final approval of the version to be published. RW: reviewed early conceptualization of the study, reviewed the paper, and offered final approval of the version to be published. GS: reviewed early conceptualization of the study, reviewed the paper, and offered final approval of the version to be published. HG: reviewed early conceptualization of the study, substantially contributed to the revision of the paper and interpretation, reviewed the paper, and offered final approval of the version to be published.

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Correspondence to Matthew Price.

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Price, M., Albaugh, M., Hahn, S. et al. Examination of the association between exposure to childhood maltreatment and brain structure in young adults: a machine learning analysis. Neuropsychopharmacol. 46, 1888–1894 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41386-021-00987-7

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