How Child Abuse Primes the Brain for Future Mental Illness

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department for Children and Families (DCF), both describe child abuse or maltreatment as any act or series of acts of commission or omission by a parent or other caregiver that results in harm, potential for harm, or threat of harm to a child. According to Childhelp, every year 3.3 million reports of child abuse are made in the United States involving 6 million children.  For an industrialized nation, the United States has one of the worst records in child abuse deaths,  losing  five children every day. 

Experts and researchers in child development have known there is a relation between early abuse and mental illness in children for quite some time.  In a recent study in using brain scans to show the effects of child abuse, researchers have discovered specific changes in regions and the hippocampus in the brains of young adults who were maltreated or neglected in childhood.  These changes lead the researchers to believe that child abuse victims are more vulnerable to depression, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The study was conducted by a Harvard research team led by Dr. Martin Teicher and studied approximately 200 people aged 18 to 21, who were mainly middle-class and well-educated.  The study excluded those who were severely addicted to drugs and those on psychiatric medications, because both types of drugs could cause changes in the brain that could obscure the findings. 

When the researchers studied the brain scans of these young adults, they could see the aftermath of that trauma they had suffered as a child.  Formerly maltreated youth showed reductions in the volume of the hippocampus, and also reductions in two other regions of the brain when compared with people who had not been abused.  It appears that early stress makes the brain less resilient to the effects of later stress.  The researchers wrote that  we “suspect that our findings are a consequence of maltreatment and a risk factor for developing PTSD following exposure to further traumas.”

Even though the findings are just preliminary in nature, with nearly 4 million children evaluated for child abuse or neglect in our nation every year, child maltreatment isn’t something we can ignore.  This is a problem that costs our country over $120 billion in lost productivity and health, child welfare and criminal justice costs every year.  From this study, researchers have pinpointed that the effects of abuse do linger and puts these children at risk in later years for not only mental illness, but for developing such chronic diseases as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke. 

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