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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Association of childhood trauma with cognitive function in healthy adults: a pilot study

Matthias Majer12, Urs M Nater12, Jin-Mann S Lin2, Lucile Capuron3 and William C Reeves2*

Author Affiliations

1 Dept. of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA, USA

2 Chronic Viral Diseases Branch, Coordinating Center for Infectious Diseases, Centers for Disease Control& Prevention, Atlanta, GA, USA

3 Laboratory of Psychoneuroimmunology, Nutrition and Genetics, INRA-University Victor Segalen Bordeaux 2, Bordeaux, France

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BMC Neurology 2010, 10:61  doi:10.1186/1471-2377-10-61

Published: 14 July 2010



Animal and human studies suggest that stress experienced early in life has detrimental consequences on brain development, including brain regions involved in cognitive function. Cognitive changes are cardinal features of depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. Early-life trauma is a major risk factor for these disorders. Only few studies have measured the long-term consequences of childhood trauma on cognitive function in healthy adults.


In this pilot study, we investigated the relationship between childhood trauma exposure and cognitive function in 47 healthy adults, who were identified as part of a larger study from the general population in Wichita, KS. We used the Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery (CANTAB) and the Wide-Range-Achievement-Test (WRAT-3) to examine cognitive function and individual achievement. Type and severity of childhood trauma was assessed by the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ). Data were analyzed using multiple linear regression on CANTAB measures with primary predictors (CTQ scales) and potential confounders (age, sex, education, income).


Specific CTQ scales were significantly associated with measures of cognitive function. Emotional abuse was associated with impaired spatial working memory performance. Physical neglect correlated with impaired spatial working memory and pattern recognition memory. Sexual abuse and physical neglect were negatively associated with WRAT-3 scores. However, the association did not reach the significance level of p < 0.01.


Our results suggest that physical neglect and emotional abuse might be associated with memory deficits in adulthood, which in turn might pose a risk factor for the development of psychopathology.