Victims of childhood maltreatment or sexual abuse often suffer from serious psychiatric disorders as well as sexual dysfunction. The underlying mechanisms mediating this association are poorly understood. A group of scientists lead by Prof. Christine Heim, Director of the Institute of Medical Psychology at Charité University Medicine Berlin, together with Prof. Jens Pruessner, Director of the McGill Centre for Studies in Aging, at McGill University used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine 51 adult women who were exposed to various forms of childhood maltreatment. The scientists measured the thickness of the cerebral cortex, where sensations from all parts of the body are processed.
The results showed a correlation between specific forms of maltreatment and thinning of the cortex in precisely the regions of the brain that are involved in the perception or processing of the abuse. “The large effect and the regional specificity in the brain that corresponds to the type of abuse is remarkable”, says Prof. Pruessner, also Associate Professor at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute. For example, the somatosensory cortex in the areas in which the female genitalia are represented was significantly thinner in women who were victims of sexual abuse in their childhood. Victims of emotional maltreatment, in contrast, showed a specific reduction of the thickness of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with self-awareness and emotional regulation.