Heightened neural reactivity to threat in child victims of family violence

E.J. McCrory, S.A. De Brito, C.L. Sebastian, A. Mechelli, G. Bird, P.A. Kelly, E. Viding

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Exposure to family violence affects a significant minority of children: estimates of physical abuse range from 4 to 16%, while intimate partner violence affects between 8 and 25% of children [1]. These maltreatment experiences represent a form of environmental stress that significantly increases risk of later psychopathology, including anxiety 1 and 2. To date, no functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have probed the neural correlates of emotional processing in children exposed to family violence. Previous psychological and electrophysiological studies indicate a selective hypervigilance to angry cues in physically abused children, which is in turn associated with elevated levels of anxiety [3]. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) research has demonstrated increased reactivity of the anterior insula (AI) and amygdala to angry faces in individuals with anxiety disorder [4], and in psychiatrically healthy soldiers exposed to combat [5], making these regions plausible neural candidates for adaptation to threat. We demonstrated that children exposed to family violence (with normative levels of anxiety) show increased AI and amygdala reactivity in response to angry but not sad faces. While such enhanced reactivity to a biologically salient threat cue may represent an adaptive response to sustained environmental danger, it may also constitute a latent neurobiological risk factor increasing vulnerability to psychopathology.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)R947-R948
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number23
Publication statusPublished - 6 Dec 2011


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