A study of over a hundred people’s brains suggests that abuse during childhood is linked to changes in brain structure that may make depression more severe in later life.
Nils Opel at the University of Münster, Germany, and his colleagues scanned the brains of 110 adults hospitalised for major depressive disorder and asked them about the severity of their depression and whether they had experienced neglect or emotional, sexual or physical abuse during childhood.
Statistical analysis revealed that those who experienced childhood abuse were more likely to have a smaller insular cortex – a brain region involved in emotional awareness.
Over the following two years, 75 of the adults experienced another bout of depression. The team found that those who had both a history of childhood abuse and a smaller insular cortex were more likely to have a relapse.
“This is pointing to a mechanism: that childhood trauma leads to brain structure alterations, and these lead to recurrence of depression and worse outcomes,” says Opel.
The findings suggest that people with depression who experienced abuse as children could need specialised treatment, he says.
Brain changes can be reversible, says Opel, and the team is planning to test which types of therapies might work best for this group.
Journal reference: Lancet Psychiatry, DOI: 10.1016/S2215-0366(19)30044-6