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Touch Less Comforting to Adults Who Experienced Childhood Maltreatment

August 29, 2019

Adults who experienced maltreatment as children perceive social stimuli such as touch and interpersonal distance differently than adults who did not experience childhood maltreatment, a study published online in The American Journal of Psychiatry reports.

“The study findings suggest that higher childhood maltreatment levels are associated with hypersensitivity characterized by a preference for larger interpersonal distance and discomfort of fast touch,” researchers wrote.

The study included 92 adults who were medication-free and not diagnosed with any neurological conditions. Participants were categorized according to the level of childhood maltreatment experienced.

Trauma Patients at High Risk for Later Social Dysfunction

During a social distance experiment, participants were directed to walk up to a stranger and stop at the point they perceived the social distance as pleasant. Those with high levels of childhood maltreatment had a significantly larger—about 12 centimeters on average—preferred interpersonal difference, compared with participants with lower levels of childhood maltreatment, according to the study.

Researchers also conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans while participants underwent touch. Specifically, a gloved researcher stroked participants’ shins with fast and slow movements while fMRI scans recorded brain activation.

The higher the level of childhood maltreatment, the more strongly the right somatosensory and posterior insula cortexes reacted to rapid touches, which correlated with low ratings of comfort, researchers reported.

Child Abuse, Recurrent Depression Linked to Similar Changes in Brain

The study also found that in adults who experienced high levels of childhood maltreatment, the right hippocampus responded more weakly to slow touches.

“The results show that the perception and sensory processing of people with traumatic childhood experiences have changed,” summarized researcher Dirk Scheele, MSc, PhD, of the medical psychology department at Bonn University Hospital in Germany.

If future research supports the concept, “this result may also open up opportunities for new therapies,” added lead author Ayline Maier, MSc. “Supplementary body-based therapies in a safe environment could make it possible to retrain this stimulus processing.”

—Jolynn Tumolo


Maier A, Gieling C, Heinen-Ludwig L, et al. Association of childhood maltreatment with interpersonal distance and social touch preferences in adulthood. The American Journal of Psychiatry. 2019 August 16;[Epub ahead of print].

Traumas change perception in the long term [press release]. Bonn, Germany: University of Bonn; August 19, 2019.

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