Stress-elicited neural activity in young adults varies with childhood sexual abuse

Juliann B. Purcell, Adam M. Goodman, Nathaniel G. Harnett, Elizabeth S. Davis, Muriah D. Wheelock, Sylvie Mrug, Marc N. Elliott, Susan Tortolero Emery, Mark A. Schuster, David C. Knight

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Objective: Childhood physical and sexual abuse are stressful experiences that may alter the emotional response to future stressors. Stress-related emotional function is supported by brain regions that include the prefrontal cortex (PFC), hippocampus, and amygdala. The present study investigated whether childhood physical and sexual abuse are associated with stress-elicited brain activity in young adulthood. Methods: Participants (N = 300; Mage = 20.0; 151 female) completed a psychosocial stress task during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Measures of physical and sexual abuse were included in a linear mixed effects model to estimate the unique relationship each type of childhood abuse had with stress-elicited brain activity. Results: Stress-elicited dorsolateral PFC, ventromedial PFC, and hippocampal activity decreased as the frequency of childhood sexual abuse increased. There were no regions in which stress-elicited activation varied with physical abuse. Conclusions: The present findings suggest there is a unique relationship between childhood sexual abuse and the stress-elicited PFC and hippocampal activity of young adults that is not observed following childhood physical abuse. Significance: These findings may have important implications for understanding the mechanisms by which childhood sexual abuse impacts the development of future psychopathology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)108-123
Number of pages16
StatePublished - Apr 2021


  • Childhood trauma questionnaire
  • Hippocampus
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Psychosocial stress
  • fMRI


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