Project AIM

Advances In Methods

Principal Investigators

  • Liz Handley, Ph.D.
  • Sheree Toth, Ph.D.


  • National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

Project Summary


Child maltreatment, a form of violence inflicted on children, is a complex, insidious problem that, although occurring more frequently in families residing in poverty, cuts across all sectors of society.  The human costs of child maltreatment are a litany of biological and psychological tragedies that may last a lifetime.  The economic costs for American society are astronomical, with billions of dollars spent in psychiatric, social services, educational, and justice system costs, as well as lessened productivity for a generation of abused children.  Discovering the processes underlying the development of psychopathology and resilience among maltreated children offers great promise for informing prevention, intervention, and social policy initiatives.

A multiple levels of analysis approach is integral to understanding the diverse ways child maltreatment compromises health.  Herein, we capitalize on a large data set (N=1135) including comprehensive assessments of maltreated and demographically comparable nonmaltreated children.  Biological measures (genotypes; DHEA and testosterone) were obtained and using innovative quantitative methods will allow us to significantly advance new knowledge of substantial public health significance.

Extant genetic work associated with child maltreatment has largely been in the context of examining gene x environment interactions (GxE), focusing on single gene polymorphisms.  Given the diverse forms of psychopathology associated with maltreatment, we posit that multiple polygenic risk composites exist that will interact with maltreatment to affect child outcomes.  We will use person-centered methods to differentiate individuals sharing multiple common genetic polymorphisms involved in the stress response system, and to advance our understanding of complex polygenic x environment interactions in child maltreatment.

We will also investigate the effects of child maltreatment experiences on stress responsive hormonal systems, specifically the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) and the Hypothalamic Pituitary Gonadal (HPG) axes. Whereas the HPA axis had received considerable attention in regard to the impact of child maltreatment, attention to the role of the HPG axis and the mutual co-regulation between these axes has been limited.  We seek to expand understanding of dysfunction in these regulatory systems through innovative statistical modeling. The dynamics of these systems will be examined in association with child maltreatment and different forms of emerging psychopathology.

The findings will augment the knowledge base regarding the sequelae of child maltreatment and the etiology of trauma-based psychopathology, and the knowledge gained will inform prevention and intervention initiatives to divert maltreated children from the development of trauma-related psychopathology and contribute toward reducing the burden of mental illness in traumatized children.