Childhood Brain Damage

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Study: Child abuse can damage the brain

Child abuse is clearly visible and therefore verifiable in adulthood. Study participants who were affected in childhood showed a less developed hippocampal area compared to others in the brain. This section is responsible for emotions, among other things. The scientists suspect that this makes the victims more susceptible to mental illness.

Childhood physical and mental abuse lead to traumatic experiences. To cope with the trauma, those affected often have to undergo outpatient and inpatient therapies for years. Many can only cope with everyday life with the help of strong medication. In addition to mental illnesses such as depression or personality disorders, developmental disorders in the patient's brain can also occur due to the bad experiences, according to scientists led by Martin Teicher from Belmont of the Harvard Medical School in the US state of Massachusetts.

Study with young adults
In the research work with 193 adult subjects, US researchers were able to demonstrate significant changes in the brain even after decades of childhood abuse. Both adults who reported ongoing traumatic experiences in childhood and participants who were not abused participated in the study. The subjects were mixed genders; 73 men and 120 women between the ages of 18 and 25 years took part in the study. Before the study, the participants were asked about the different traumatic experiences in order to categorize the abuse they had experienced into sexual abuse, emotional neglect, verbal and / or physical violence or verbal abuse. Family backgrounds such as divorces and separation situations of parents, ongoing problems and other stress-triggering factors were also important in the survey.

46 percent said they had no negative experiences in their childhood. 16 percent said they had experienced at least one or more forms of traumatizing violence. 25 percent said they have had depressive episodes and other mental illnesses.

Magnetic resonance examination showed size differences
In the second round, the participants were invited to an examination. The researchers took pictures of the brains of all participants using a magnetic resonance imaging device (MRI). The size of the hippocampus was determined during the subsequent evaluation. The researchers paid particular attention to the three key areas in the area. Previous studies had shown that cells form hormones in response to stress in key areas. This happens especially when the brain is not fully developed during childhood. It is reasonable to assume that if the stress hormones are produced excessively, the development of the nerve cells in the hippocampus will be disturbed. The hippocampus reacts very vulnerably in the development phase between the third and fifth year of life.

During the course of the study, the scientists found that the group of traumatized people had a comparatively smaller hippocampus. The brain areas, which are evolutionarily very old in terms of their development, are responsible, among other things, for the formation of emotions and memory. Smaller key areas in the hippocampus were seen in study participants who had to experience bad things during their childhood. These were between 5.8 to 6.5 percent smaller than in the control group. According to the scientists, measurable changes in the hippocampus region would be observed in a large number of mental illnesses. For example, they occur in schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorders, depression or personality disorders such as borderline.

New explanation for increased incidence of mental illness
The researchers hope that the results will provide further explanations for research into mental illnesses. According to the researchers, the results could be used to analyze why people who suffered from ill-treatment in their childhood usually develop mental illnesses such as depression, addiction or other disorders. Due to the "impairments in early childhood, those affected are likely to be more susceptible to mental illnesses". To this end, further studies must follow, said the director of studies. However, the results point in the direction to be researched. The study report was published in the renowned science magazine "Proceedings" of the US Academy of Sciences (PNAS). (sb)

Read on:
Child abuse leaves scars in the brain
Higher risk of illness from trauma

Image: Martin Schemm /

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Video: Treating Traumatic Brain Injuries

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