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Annual Research Review: Childhood maltreatment, latent vulnerability and the shift to preventative psychiatry – the contribution of functional brain imaging

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Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry

Published online on


Background Childhood maltreatment is a potent predictor of poor mental health across the life span. We argue that there is a need to improve the understanding of the mechanisms that confer psychiatric vulnerability following maltreatment, if we are to progress from simply treating those with a manifest disorder, to developing effective preventative approaches that can help offset the likelihood that such disorders will emerge in the first place. Methods We review extant functional neuroimaging studies of children and adolescents exposed to early neglect and/or maltreatment, including physical, sexual and emotional abuse across four neurocognitive domains: threat processing, reward processing, emotion regulation and executive control. Findings are discussed in the context of ‘latent vulnerability’, where alterations in neurocognitive function are considered to carry adaptive value in early adverse caregiving environments but confer long‐term risk. Results Studies on threat processing indicate heightened as well as depressed neural responsiveness in maltreated samples, particularly in the amygdala, thought to reflect threat hypervigilance and avoidance respectively. Studies on reward processing generally report blunted neural response to anticipation and receipt of rewards, particularly in the striatum, patterns associated with depressive symptomatology. Studies on emotion regulation report increased activation of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) during active emotion regulation, possibly reflecting greater effortful processing. Finally, studies of executive control report increased dorsal ACC activity during error monitoring and inhibition. Conclusions An emerging body of work indicates that altered neurocognitive functioning following maltreatment: (a) is evident even in the absence of overt psychopathology; (b) is consistent with perturbations seen in individuals presenting with psychiatric disorder; (c) can predict future psychiatric symptomatology. These findings suggest that maltreatment leads to neurocognitive alterations that embed latent vulnerability to psychiatric disorder, establishing a compelling case for identifying those children at most risk and developing mechanistically informed models of preventative intervention. Such interventions should aim to offset the likelihood of any future psychiatric disorder.