Sexual assault and white matter hyperintensities among midlife women

Rebecca C. Thurston, Karen P. Jakubowski, Minjie Wu, Howard J. Aizenstein, Yuefang Chang, Carol A. Derby, Karestan C. Koenen, Emma Barinas-Mitchell, Pauline M. Maki

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Traumatic experiences have been linked to poor mental and physical health. However, there has been little examination of their relationship to neuroimaging markers of cerebrovascular risk. White matter hyperintensities (WMHs) are markers of brain small vessel disease. WMHs can be detected decades before the onset of dementia and other disorders and can serve as early markers for these brain disorders. We tested whether traumatic experiences were associated with brain WMH volume among midlife women. In the MsBrain study, 145 women (mean age = 59 years) without cardiovascular disease, stroke, or dementia were recruited. Women completed questionnaires [trauma checklist, depression, post-traumatic stress measures]; physical measures [body mass index (BMI), blood pressure (BP)]; phlebotomy; actigraphy sleep measurement, and 3 Tesla magnetic resonance brain imaging for WMHs. Cross-sectional associations between traumatic experiences and WMH volume were assessed in linear regression models. Covariates were age, race/ethnicity, education, BMI, BP, lipids, preeclampsia, sleep, and additionally depressive and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. 68% of women endorsed at least one of the traumas assessed. The most common trauma was sexual assault (23% of women). Women with trauma exposure had greater WMH volume than women without trauma [B(SE) =.24 (.09), p =.01, multivariable]. The single trauma most associated with WMH was sexual assault [B(SE) =.25 (.11), p =.02, multivariable]. Results persisted adjusting for depressive or post-traumatic stress symptoms. A trauma history, particularly sexual assault, was associated with greater WMH volume controlling for covariates, including depressive and post-traumatic symptoms. Sexual assault may place women at risk for poor brain health.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)773-780
Number of pages8
JournalBrain Imaging and Behavior
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2022


  • Cerebrovascular
  • Sexual assault
  • Trauma
  • White matter hyperintensities
  • Women

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging
  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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