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Sex differences in socioemotional functioning, attentional bias, and gray matter volume in maltreated children: A multilevel investigation

  • Philip A. Kelly (a1) (a2), Essi Viding (a1), Vanessa B. Puetz (a1), Amy L. Palmer (a1), Andrea Mechelli (a3), Jean-Baptiste Pingault (a1), Sophie Samuel (a1) and Eamon J. McCrory (a1) (a2)...

While maltreatment is known to impact social and emotional functioning, threat processing, and neural structure, the potentially dimorphic influence of sex on these outcomes remains relatively understudied. We investigated sex differences across these domains in a large community sample of children aged 10 to 14 years (n = 122) comprising 62 children with verified maltreatment experience and 60 well-matched nonmaltreated peers. The maltreated group relative to the nonmaltreated comparison group exhibited poorer social and emotional functioning (more peer problems and heightened emotional reactivity). Cognitively, they displayed a pattern of attentional avoidance of threat in a visual dot-probe task. Similar patterns were observed in males and females in these domains. Reduced gray matter volume was found to characterize the maltreated group in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, bilateral middle temporal lobes, and bilateral supramarginal gyrus; sex differences were observed only in the supramarginal gyrus. In addition, a disordinal interaction between maltreatment exposure and sex was found in the postcentral gyrus. Finally, attentional avoidance to threat mediated the relationship between maltreatment and emotional reactivity, and medial orbitofrontal cortex gray matter volume mediated the relationship between maltreatment and peer functioning. Similar mediation patterns were observed across sexes. This study highlights the utility of combining multiple levels of analysis when studying the “latent vulnerability” engendered by childhood maltreatment and yields tentative findings regarding a neural basis of sex differences in long-term outcomes for maltreated children.

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Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Philip A. Kelly, Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1 6BT, UK; E-mail:
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Development and Psychopathology
  • ISSN: 0954-5794
  • EISSN: 1469-2198
  • URL: /core/journals/development-and-psychopathology
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