Child sexual abuse (CSA) can generate PTSD and cognitive deficiencies. Studies using priming tasks have reported that adults with PTSD tend to remember threatening events better than pleasant or neutral ones.
To determine whether girls with CSA present enhanced priming for negative emotional stimuli, and to identify the relationship between PTSD symptomatology and performance on priming tasks with different emotional content.
48 girls (9–16 years old) were evaluated in three groups, each with 14 participants: (a) institutionalized with intrafamily child sexual abuse (CSA); (b) institutionalized without CSA (INS); and (c) non-institutionalized without CSA (NINS). All subjects performed verbal and facial priming tasks with emotional and neutral content.
The CSA group presented enhanced priming for both happy and scared faces compared to the NINS and INS groups. Performance on these faces correlated positively with the intensity of PTSD symptoms. Conversely, on the verbal priming task, that group presented lower performance regardless of the emotional valence of the words. In that case, performance correlated inversely with PTSD symptomatology.
Results suggest that verbal and facial stimuli with emotional valence may have differential effects on girls with a history of CSA. The enhanced priming effect for emotional faces, together with the deficiencies in priming for words could, therefore, be associated with symptoms of re-experiencing in girls with CSA.