The Neurological Legacy of Childhood Trauma

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It’s almost common knowledge that many people who experienced trauma as children have a harder time in adult life. Indeed, over the past few decades, well-designed studies have verified this impression by finding that a great number of such people really do have a greater chance of depression, anxiety, or other psychological disorders, behavioral and social problems, and poorer health outcomes.

Less well known is that trauma – even in the absence of physical trauma- can have negative impacts on the brain itself that last into adulthood.

Studies on the neurological effects of stress and trauma have consistently shown structural and functional neurological changes, though the specific nature of these changes is currently unclear. A consistent theme, however, is that trauma especially affects one of the body’s key stress response systems, the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis. For example, the hippocampus, a brain region involved in memory and emotion and rich in receptors for stress hormones, has been shown to be smaller in traumatized adults – including adults traumatized as children – than in those without such history.

Children can be traumatized not only by the same things that can traumatize adults – for example, direct physical/sexual abuse, natural disasters, or events related to war – but also by experiences that would likely affect an adult differently or not at all, such as neglect, verbal aggression, witnessing abuse within the family, a chaotic home environment, or inadequate nutrition. In a way, this stands to reason, because these experiences may subvert the critical developmental stages a child passes through on the way to adulthood.

Better understanding the neurological and psychological mechanisms by which adverse childhood experiences can lead to adult dysfunction could help inform and improve practices in prevention, intervention, and treatment. Because children will, as adults, be members of a family, a community, a workforce, a government, and a population, it is critical that research continue and, most importantly, that the findings be translated and applied in real settings.

I invite readers to comment below with their thoughts, or with links or other information, that others might find useful or interesting.

Further reading:

Child Welfare Information Gateway (2008) Long-Term Consequences of Child Abuse and Neglect. US Department of Health and Human Services. http://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/factsheets/long_term_consequences.cfm

McCrory E, et al. (2011) The Impact of Childhood Maltreatment: A Review of Neurobiological and Genetic Factors. Front Psychiatry 2: 48. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2011.00048 [http://www.frontiersin.org/Child_and_Neurodevelopmental_Psychiatry/10.3389/fpsyt.2011.00048/full]

Spenrath MA, et al. (2011) The Science of Brain and Biological Development: Implications for Mental Health Research, Practice, and Policy. J Can Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 20: 298-304. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3222573/

UNICEF. Focus area: Young child survival and development. http://www.unicef.org/childsurvival/index.html

US Centers for Disease Control. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. http://www.cdc.gov/ace/index.htm

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