Enhanced amygdala reactivity to emotional faces in adults reporting childhood emotional maltreatment

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 8, p.362-369 (2013)


Adult Amygdala/*physiology Anger/physiology Anxiety Disorders/physiopathology Depression/physiopathology Emotions/*physiology Face/*physiology *Facial Expression Fear/psychology Female Humans Male Middle Aged Prefrontal Cortex/physiology


In the context of chronic childhood emotional maltreatment (CEM; emotional abuse and/or neglect), adequately responding to facial expressions is an important skill. Over time, however, this adaptive response may lead to a persistent vigilance for emotional facial expressions. The amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) are key regions in face processing. However, the neurobiological correlates of face processing in adults reporting CEM are yet unknown. We examined amygdala and mPFC reactivity to emotional faces (Angry, Fearful, Sad, Happy, Neutral) vs scrambled faces in healthy controls and unmedicated patients with depression and/or anxiety disorders reporting CEM before the age of 16 years (n = 60), and controls and patients who report no childhood abuse (n = 75). We found that CEM was associated with enhanced bilateral amygdala reactivity to emotional faces in general, and independent of psychiatric status. Furthermore, we found no support for differential mPFC functioning, suggesting that amygdala hyper-responsivity to emotional facial perception in adults reporting CEM may be independent from top-down influences of the mPFC. These findings may be key in understanding the increased emotional sensitivity and interpersonal difficulties, that have been reported in individuals with a history of CEM.