Influence of early trauma on features of schizophrenia

Eugene Ruby, Karen Rothman, Cheryl Corcoran, Raymond R. Goetz, Dolores Malaspina

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

51 Scopus citations


Aim: This proof-of-concept study examined if early trauma influences features of schizophrenia, consistent with hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activation. Methods: Early trauma and current perceived stress were assessed in 28 treated schizophrenia cases, along with salivary cortisol, brain volumes, cognition and symptoms. Results: Early trauma predicted more positive (r =.66, P =.005) and dysthymia symptoms (r –.65, P =.007), but less negative symptoms (r = −.56, P =.023), as well as reduced whole brain volumes (r =.50, P =.040) and increased amygdala to whole brain volume ratios (r =.56, P =.018). Larger volume reductions accompanied cortisol levels: evening values predicted smaller whole brain and hippocampal volumes whereas afternoon levels only significantly predicted smaller brain volumes in women. Sex differences were demonstrated between early trauma and cognition, with better cognition in traumatized women than other women and no male effects. Current perceived stress was related to dysthymia (especially in women) and diminished sense of purpose and social drive (especially in men). Conclusions: These results suggest that early trauma and current stress impact features of schizophrenia, consistent with stress sensitization and increased dopamine activity for treatment refractory positive symptoms, as well as the cascade of increased morning cortisol, reduced brain volumes, and depressive and deficit symptoms. Conversely, cognitive deficits and negative symptoms may arise from a distinct diathesis. The sex differences accord with the literature on human HPA function and stress responses. Early trauma may be a stressor in the aetiopathophysiology of schizophrenia, particularly for cases with treatment refractory positive symptoms, and may guide future treatment development.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)322-333
Number of pages12
JournalEarly Intervention in Psychiatry
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • brain volume
  • childhood trauma
  • cortisol
  • neurobiology
  • schizophrenia


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