Children Who Suffer Abuse or Stress Early May Have Brains Damaged for Life

It makes perfect sense.  Early life stress may damage our brains.

According to newswise.com, a little stress is good for kids because it helps them learn to overcome it, and cope.  But "chronic, toxic stress like poverty, neglect and physical abuse — can have lasting negative impacts."

A study has showed that these kinds of stressors, experienced in early life, might be changing the parts of developing children’s brains responsible for learning, memory and the processing of stress and emotion. These changes may be tied to negative impacts on behavior, health, employment and even the choice of romantic partners later in life.

As a person who experienced this kind of stress as a child, I can attest to its truth.  It affects how you view life and shapes your perspective, for better or worse.  I was lucky.  I had people around who helped me through it  and over time, I learned to cope.  Did it affect me for life?  Yes.

"We haven’t really understood why things that happen when you’re 2, 3, 4 years old stay with you and have a lasting impact,” the Web site quotes Seth Pollak, co-leader of the study and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of psychology.

Yet, early life stress has been tied before to depression, anxiety, heart disease, cancer, and a lack of educational and employment success, says Pollak.


Newswise reports that, for the study, the team recruited 128 children around age 12 who had experienced either physical abuse, neglect early in life or came from low socioeconomic status households.

Researchers conducted extensive interviews with the children and their caregivers, documenting behavioral problems and their cumulative life stress. They also took images of the children’s brains, focusing on the parts involved in emotion and stress processing. They were compared to similar children from middle-class households who had not been maltreated.

Measurements taken in the study of the brain found that children who experienced any of the three types of early life stress had smaller areas for handling emotions and dealing with stress than children who had not. Children from low socioeconomic status households and children who had been physically abused also had smaller brain volumes.

Why early life stress may lead to smaller brain structures is unknown, says study lead author and recent UW Ph.D. graduate Jamie Hanson, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at Duke University’s Laboratory for NeuroGenetics.  But a smaller hippocampus, one of the parts of the brain involved in coping with stress, "is a demonstrated risk factor for negative outcomes."

But the researchers point out that this doesn't necessarily mean that all children who are abused or neglected early in life will be permanently harmed by their experiences. “Just because it’s in the brain doesn’t mean it’s destiny,” says Hanson.




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