Early life stress and trauma and enhanced limbic activation to emotionally valenced faces in depressed and healthy children

Hideo Suzuki, Joan L. Luby, Kelly N. Botteron, Rachel Dietrich, Mark P. McAvoy, Deanna M. Barch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


Objective Previous studies have examined the relationships between structural brain characteristics and early life stress in adults. However, there is limited evidence for functional brain variation associated with early life stress in children. We hypothesized that early life stress and trauma would be associated with increased functional brain activation response to negative emotional faces in children with and without a history of depression. Method Psychiatric diagnosis and life events in children (starting at age 3-5 years) were assessed in a longitudinal study. A follow-up magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study acquired data (N = 115 at ages 7-12, 51% girls) on functional brain response to fearful, sad, and happy faces relative to neutral faces. We used a region-of-interest mask within cortico-limbic areas and conducted regression analyses and repeated-measures analysis of covariance. Results Greater activation responses to fearful, sad, and happy faces in the amygdala and its neighboring regions were found in children with greater life stress. Moreover, an association between life stress and left hippocampal and globus pallidus activity depended on children's diagnostic status. Finally, all children with greater life trauma showed greater bilateral amygdala and cingulate activity specific to sad faces but not the other emotional faces, although right amygdala activity was moderated by psychiatric status. Conclusions These findings suggest that limbic hyperactivity may be a biomarker of early life stress and trauma in children and may have implications in the risk trajectory for depression and other stress-related disorders. However, this pattern varied based on emotion type and history of psychopathology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)800-813.e10
JournalJournal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • child
  • early life stress
  • early life trauma
  • emotion
  • fMRI

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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