Psychological Medicine

Research Article

Hippocampal volume in women victimized by childhood sexual abuse

M. B. STEIN a1 , C. KOVEROLA a1 , C. HANNA a1 , M. G. TORCHIA a1 and B. McCLARTY a1
a1 Departments of Psychiatry, Psychology and Radiology, University of Manitoba and St. Boniface, General Hospital Research Centre, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada; and Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Diego and the Psychiatry Service, VA Medical Center, La Jolla, CA, USA


Background. Several prior studies have found reduced hippocampal volume in victims of psychological trauma with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We were interested to determine if this finding was evident in women who were victimized by severe sexual abuse in childhood.

Methods. In this study, hippocampal volume was measured using quantitative magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in 21 women who reported being severely sexually abused in childhood and 21 socio-demographically similar women without abuse histories.

Results. Women who reported sexual victimization in childhood had significantly reduced (5% smaller) left-sided hippocampal volume compared to the non-victimized women. Hippocampal volume was also smaller on the right side, but this failed to reach statistical significance. Left-sided hippocampal volume correlated highly (rs=[minus sign]0·73) with dissociative symptom severity, but not with indices of explicit memory functioning.

Conclusions. These findings, which are generally consistent with prior reports of reduced hippocampal volume in combat veterans with PTSD, suggest that diminished hippocampal size may be either a consequence of trauma exposure or a risk factor for the development of psychiatric complications following trauma exposure. The observed relationship between symptom severity and hippocampal volume suggests that mesial temporal lobe dysfunction may directly mediate certain aspects of PTSD and dissociative disorder symptomatology.


Dr Murray B. Stein, Psychiatry Service (116A), VA Medical Center, 3350 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, CA 92161, USA.