Children with maltreatment exposure exhibit rumination-like spontaneous thought patterns: association with symptoms of depression, subcallosal cingulate cortex thickness, and cortisol levels

Ferdinand Hoffmann, Roman Linz, Nikolaus Steinbeis, Martin Bauer, Felix Dammering, Claudia Lazarides, Heiko Klawitter, Lea Bentz, Sonja Entringer, Sibylle M. Winter, Claudia Buss, Christine Heim

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Background: Childhood maltreatment is associated with pervasive risk for depression. However, the immediate cognitive and neural mechanisms that mediate this risk during development are unknown. We here studied the impact of maltreatment on self-generated thought (SGT) patterns and their association with depressive symptoms, subcallosal cingulate cortex (SCC) thickness, and cortisol levels in children. Methods: We recruited 183 children aged 6–12 years, 96 of which were exposed to maltreatment. Children performed a mind wandering task to elicit SGTs. A subgroup of children underwent structural magnetic resonance imaging (N = 155) for SCC thickness analyses and saliva collection for quantification of free cortisol concentrations (N = 126) was collected. Using network analysis, we assessed thought networks and compared these networks between children with and without maltreatment exposure. Using multilevel analyses, we then tested the association between thought networks of children with maltreatment exposure with depressive symptoms, SCC thickness, and cortisol levels. Results: Children exposed to maltreatment generated fewer positively valenced thoughts. Network analysis revealed rumination-like thought patterns in children with maltreatment exposure, which were associated with depressive symptoms, SCC thickness, and cortisol levels. Children with maltreatment exposure further exhibited decreased future-self thought coupling, which was associated with depressive symptoms, while other-related and past-oriented thoughts had the greatest importance within the network. Conclusions: Using a novel network analytic approach, we provide evidence that children exposed to maltreatment exhibit ruminative clustering of thoughts, which is associated with depressive symptoms and neurobiological correlates of depression. Our results provide a specific target for clinical translation to design early interventions for middle childhood. Targeting thought patterns in children with maltreatment exposure may be an effective strategy to effectively mitigate depression risk early in life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)31-41
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health

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