Background: Emotional abuse and emotional neglect are related to impaired interpersonal functioning. One underlying mechanism could be a developmental delay in mentalizing, the ability to understand other people’s thoughts and emotions.
Objective: This study investigates the neural correlates of mentalizing and the specific relationship with emotional abuse and neglect whilst taking into account the level of sexual abuse, physical abuse and physical neglect.
Method: The RMET was performed in an fMRI scanner by 46 adolescents (Age: M = 18.70, SD = 1.46) who reported a large range of emotional abuse and/or emotional neglect. CM was measured using a self-report questionnaire (CTQ).
Results: Neither severity of emotional abuse nor neglect related to RMET accuracy or reaction time. The severity of sexual abuse was related to an increased activation of the left IFG during mentalization even when controlled for psychopathology and other important covariates. This increased activation was only found in a group reporting both sexual abuse and emotional maltreatment and not when reporting isolated emotional abuse or neglect or no maltreatment. Functional connectivity analysis showed that activation in the left IFG was associated with increased activation in the right insula and right STG, indicating that the IFG activation occurs in a network relevant for mentalizing.
Conclusions: Being sexually abused in the context of emotional abuse and neglect is related to an increase in activation of the left IFG, which may indicate a delayed development of mirroring other people’s thoughts and emotions. Even though thoughts and emotions were correctly decoded from faces, the heightened activity of the left IFG could be an underlying mechanism for impaired interpersonal functioning when social situations are more complex or more related to maltreatment experiences.