Childhood maltreatment is associated with an automatic negative emotion processing bias in the amygdala


  • Udo Dannlowski and Harald Kugel contributed equally to this work.


Major depression has been repeatedly associated with amygdala hyper-responsiveness to negative (but not positive) facial expressions at early, automatic stages of emotion processing using subliminally presented stimuli. However, it is not clear whether this “limbic bias” is a correlate of depression or represents a vulnerability marker preceding the onset of the disease. Because childhood maltreatment is a potent risk factor for the development of major depression in later life, we explored whether childhood maltreatment is associated with amygdalar emotion processing bias in maltreated but healthy subjects. Amygdala responsiveness to subliminally presented sad and happy faces was measured by means of fMRI at 3 T in N = 150 healthy subjects carefully screened for psychiatric disorders. Childhood maltreatment was assessed by the 25-item childhood trauma questionnaire (CTQ). A strong association of CTQ-scores with amygdala responsiveness to sad, but not happy facial expressions emerged. This result was further qualified by an interaction of emotional valence and CTQ-scores and was not confounded by trait anxiety, current depression level, age, gender, intelligence, education level, and more recent stressful life-events. Childhood maltreatment is apparently associated with detectable changes in amygdala function during early stages of emotion processing which resemble findings described in major depression. Limbic hyper-responsiveness to negative facial cues could be a consequence of the experience of maltreatment during childhood increasing the risk of depression in later life. Limitation: the present association of limbic bias and maltreatment was demonstrated in the absence of psychopathological abnormalities, thereby limiting strong conclusions. Hum Brain Mapp 34:2899–2909, 2013. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.