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Traumatic childhood experiences impact brain function

ByAilsa Wolfe

Nov 8, 2017

It has long been understood that traumatic events can have a profound and lasting effect on people. Only in recent years, however, has science begun to uncover exactly how these events can impact brain function. In particular, trauma experienced in childhood, during what is perhaps the formative period in a person’s life, often leads to an especially pronounced mark on the brain and has been linked to increased susceptibility to mental illness later in life.

A recent study, conducted by Eamon J McCrory and researchers at University College London, found that childhood neglect and trauma can adversely affect memory function. In fact, the area of the brain that controls memory, the hippocampus, was shown to physically decrease in size as a consequence of trauma. Furthermore, executive functioning, controlled by the cerebellum, can also be impaired, as well as the brain’s capacity for emotional regulation in the prefrontal cortex.

There are a number of ways in which scientists have charted neurological changes that can occur in the brain as a result of childhood abuse and trauma. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning is one such technique that aids scientists in reaching their conclusions, as seen in the study mentioned above. This technology is especially important in enabling the scientific community to point to a biological explanation for the negative mental effects that trauma can wreak on people, as opposed to emotional and behavioural explanations. There is now evidence that the brain physically restructures in response to trauma. This puts the brain at risk for the development of mental illnesses such as PTSD and clinical depression.

Although trauma experienced at any point during a person’s life can undoubtedly have a devastating mental impact, childhood trauma is particularly insidious since children’s brains have not yet developed sufficiently to allow them to safely cope.

The organisation, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, outlines a number of ways in which this plays out. Children are less able to fully appreciate cause and effect, thus instances of trauma can be especially frightening and confusing for them. In addition, they have a reduced capability to anticipate stressful situations and develop safety coping mechanisms aside from being obviously physically far weaker and vulnerable to abuse.

The effects of trauma can manifest in a number of ways. Besides causing children to struggle to regulate their emotions and behaviour, instead acting impulsively and lashing out, children may become risk averse, scare easily, and have trouble focusing in a school environment. Other physical problems include trouble sleeping, which is not conducive to the growth of a healthy brain.

Clearly the effects of trauma are extraordinarily deep-rooted and can often set traumatised children up for a host of problems as adults. Kimberly Shilson, a psychological associate who published the book Benjee and his Brain, a study of childhood trauma, states: “Adults traumatized as children, whether through physical/sexual abuse or profound neglect, may have challenges with forming and maintaining relationships because of negatively affected brain areas.” She also goes on to say that turning to substance abuse, for instance, is commonly used as a means to escape.

As research continues into this area, it is hoped that this will lead to a better overall understanding of the various ways in which the brain is affected. In turn, on an optimistic note, this could lead to better strategies to help combat these effects.

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