Childhood maltreatment and its effect on neurocognitive functioning: Timing and chronicity matter

Raquel A. Cowell, Dante Cicchetti, Fred A. Rogosch, Sheree L. Toth

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

169 Scopus citations


Childhood maltreatment represents a complex stressor, with the developmental timing, duration, frequency, and type of maltreatment varying with each child (Barnett, Manly, & Cicchetti, 1993; Cicchetti & Manly, 2001). Multiple brain regions and neural circuits are disrupted by the experience of child maltreatment (Cicchetti & Toth, in press; DeBellis et al., 2002; McCrory & Viding, 2010; Teicher, Anderson, & Polcari, 2012). These neurobiological compromises indicate the impairment of a number of important cognitive functions, including working memory and inhibitory control. The present study extends prior research by examining the effect of childhood maltreatment on neurocognitive functioning based on developmental timing of maltreatment, including onset, chronicity, and recency, in a sample of 3-to 9-year-old nonmaltreated (n = 136) and maltreated children (n = 223). Maltreated children performed more poorly on inhibitory control and working-memory tasks than did nonmaltreated children. Group differences between maltreated children based on the timing of maltreatment and the chronicity of maltreatment also were evident. Specifically, children who were maltreated during infancy, and children with a chronic history of maltreatment, exhibited significantly poorer inhibitory control and working-memory performance than did children without a history of maltreatment. The results suggest that maltreatment occurring during infancy, a period of major brain organization, disrupts normative structure and function, and these deficits are further instantiated by the prolonged stress of chronic maltreatment during the early years of life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)521-533
Number of pages13
JournalDevelopment and psychopathology
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 6 2015

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© 2015 Cambridge University Press.


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