Decreased cortical representation of genital somatosensory field after childhood sexual abuse

Christine M. Heim, Helen S. Mayberg, Tanja Mletzko, Charles B. Nemeroff, Jens C. Pruessner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

204 Scopus citations


Objective: Sexual dysfunction is a common clinical symptom in women who were victims of childhood sexual abuse. The precise mechanism that mediates this association remains poorly understood. The authors evaluated the relationship between the experience of childhood abuse and neuroplastic thinning of cortical fields, depending on the nature of the abusive experience. Method: The authors used MRI-based cortical thickness analysis in 51 medically healthy adult women to test whether different forms of childhood abuse were associated with cortical thinning in areas critical to the perception and processing of specific behavior implicated in the type of abuse. Results: Exposure to childhoodsexualabuse was specifically associated with pronounced cortical thinning in the genital representation field of the primary somatosensory cortex. In contrast, emotional abusewas associated with cortical thinning in regions relevant to selfawareness and self-evaluation. Conclusions: Neural plasticity during development appears to result in cortical adaptation that may shield a child from the sensory processing of the specific abusive experience by altering cortical representation fields in a regionally highly specificmanner. Such plastic reorganization may be protective for the child living under abusive conditions, but it may underlie the development of behavioral problems, such as sexual dysfunction, later in life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)616-623
Number of pages8
JournalAmerican Journal of Psychiatry
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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