Emotion processing in maltreated boys and girls: Evidence for latent vulnerability

Bianca Diaconu, Gregor Kohls, Jack C. Rogers, Ruth Pauli, Harriet Cornwell, Anka Bernhard, Anne Martinelli, Katharina Ackermann, Nikola Fann, Aranzazu Fernandez-Rivas, Miguel Angel Gonzalez-Torres, Maider Gonzalez de Artaza-Lavesa, Amaia Hervas, Christina Stadler, Kerstin Konrad, Christine M. Freitag, Graeme Fairchild, Pia Rotshtein, Stephane A. De Brito

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3 Citations (SciVal)


Evidence of alterations in emotion processing in maltreated youth has been hypothesized to reflect latent vulnerability for psychopathology. However, previous studies have not systematically examined the influence of psychopathology on the results. Here, we examined emotion recognition and learning in youth who differed in terms of presence vs. absence of maltreatment and psychopathology and tested for potential sex effects. Maltreatment and psychopathology were assessed in 828 youth (514 females) aged 9–18 years using diagnostic interviews and self- and parent-report questionnaires. Emotion recognition was assessed via identification of morphed facial expressions of six universal emotions. For emotion learning, reward and punishment values were assigned to novel stimuli and participants had to learn to correctly respond/withhold response to stimuli to maximize points. A three-way interaction of maltreatment by psychopathology by emotion indicated that when psychopathology was low, maltreated youth were less accurate than non-maltreated youth for happy, fear and disgust. A three-way interaction of sex, maltreatment and emotion indicated that maltreated girls and boys were impaired for fear, but girls showed an impairment for happy, while boys for disgust. There were no effects of maltreatment, psychopathology, or sex on reward learning. However, a two-way interaction between sex and maltreatment showed that maltreated girls were worse at learning from punishment relative to non-maltreated girls, while maltreated boys were better than non-maltreated boys. The study provides the first clear evidence of latent-vulnerability in emotion recognition in maltreated youth and suggests that girls and boys might be characterized by distinct profiles of emotion recognition and learning following maltreatment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2523-2536
Number of pages14
JournalEuropean Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Issue number12
Early online date4 Feb 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The present study is part of the FemNAT-CD consortium (Neurobiology and Treatment of Adolescent Female Conduct Disorder: The Central Role of Emotion Processing, coordinator Christine M. Freitag). This collaborative project is funded by the European Commission under the 7th Framework Health Program with Grant Agreement no. 602407. Miss Bianca Diaconu is a PhD student funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council's Midlands Integrative Biosciences Training Partnership. During the writing-up of this manuscript, Drs De Brito and Pauli were supported by an ESRC grant (ES/V003526/1).

Data availability
Data are available upon request from the FemNAT committee


  • Emotion processing
  • FemNAT-CD
  • Maltreatment
  • Psychopathology
  • Sex differences

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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