How Abuse Changes a Child’s Brain

I have long been interested in the effects of abuse on the development of the child. This article from Wired Science provides evidence of brain differences in abused and not abused children. It implies that untreated child abuse increases the likelihood of intergenerational abuse through increased aggressive behaviour in adults. Wars may be a significant hotbed for abuser training as soldiers become traumatised. Even if the traumatised person is managing their aggression fairly well, it takes a lot of their brain resources from other productive purposes. Nonetheless, the effort is worth it for the value it gives to the next generation. Bottom line, if you have a touchy aggressive nature, get training in managing that aggression. It may be the most important gift you can give to your children and even the future of humanity.
“The brains of children raised in violent families resemble the brains of soldiers exposed to combat, psychologists say. They’re primed to perceive threat and anticipate pain, adaptations that may be helpful in abusive environments but produce long-term problems with stress and anxiety.

“For them to detect early cues that might signal danger is adaptive. It allows them to react, to try and avoid the danger,” said psychologist Eamon McCrory of University College London. However, “a very similar neural signature characterizes quite a few anxiety disorders.”

Previous studies have shown that abuse affects kids’ brains; as they grow up, abused children become adults with high levels of aggression, anxiety, depression and other behavioral problems.

“Understanding the neural mechanisms might give us clues as to how someone’s future might be shaped by their experience,” McCrory said.

His team compared fMRIs from abused children to those of 23 non-abused but demographically similar children from a control group. In the abused children, angry faces provoked distinct activation patterns in their anterior insula and right amygdala, parts of the brain involved in processing threat and pain. Similar patterns have been measured in soldiers who’ve seen combat.

McCrory hopes future work will give a more complete picture of abuse’s neurological effects — and, perhaps, the effects of interventions that help children heal. “Can children change in response to an act of intervention? To a better home environment? We’re quite optimistic that’s the case, that this is reversible. But that’s something we need to test,” McCrory said.

Image: D. Sharon Pruitt/Flickr

Citation: “Heightened neural reactivity to threat in child victims of family violence.” By Eamon J. McCrory, Stéphane A. De Brito, Catherine L. Sebastian, Andrea Mechelli, Geoffrey Bird, Phillip A. Kelly, and Essi Viding. Current Biology, Vol. 21 No. 23, Dec. 6, 2011.”

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