Opportunities for research on the causes and consequences of stress-related hippocampal atrophy are limited in human psychiatric disorders. Therefore, this longitudinal study investigated early life stress and inherited variation in monkey hippocampal volumes.
Paternal half-siblings raised apart from one another by different mothers in the absence of fathers were randomized to 1 of 3 postnatal conditions that disrupted diverse aspects of early maternal care (n = 13 monkeys per condition). These conditions were previously shown to produce differences in social behavior, emotional reactivity, and neuroendocrine stress physiology. Hippocampal volumes were subsequently determined in adulthood by high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging.
Adult hippocampal volumes did not differ with respect to the stressful postnatal conditions. Based on paternal half-sibling effects, the estimated proportion of genetic variance, ie, heritability, was 54% for hippocampal size. Paternal half-siblings with small adult hippocampal volumes responded to the removal of all mothers after weaning with initially larger relative increases in cortisol levels. Plasma cortisol levels 3 and 7 days later, and measures of cortisol-negative feedback in adulthood were not, however, correlated with hippocampal size.
In humans with mood and anxiety disorders, small hippocampal volumes have been taken as evidence that excessive stress levels of cortisol induce hippocampal volume loss. Results from this study of monkeys suggest that small hippocampi also reflect an inherited characteristic of the brain. Genetically informed clinical studies should assess whether inherited variation in hippocampal morphology contributes to excessive stress levels of cortisol through diminished neuroendocrine regulation.