Child Abuse Prepares the Brain for a Lifetime of Mental Health Issues
We can see the aftermath of childhood trauma on brain scans. Children who are abused, physically, emotionally, sexually or neglected, have different adult brains than their counterparts who were not abused. Current research suggests that those who were abused are left vulnerable to a lifetime of mental illness and psychological problems, perhaps due to these changes in brain structure.
Time magazine reports:
Now, in the largest study yet to use brain scans to show the effects of child abuse, researchers have found specific changes in key regions in and around the hippocampus in the brains of young adults who were maltreated or neglected in childhood. These changes may leave victims more vulnerable to depression, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the study suggests.
These are profound results.
Dr. Martin Teicher led a team of Harvard University researchers. They studied nearly 200 individuals ages 18-25. The participants were middle-class and educated. The study was on “memories of childhood.” The study focused specifically on child abuse and neglect, so those who had suffered gang violence or car accidents were excluded from the study. Also excluded were heavy drug users and those taking psychiatric medications, because those drugs could have an impact on the brain and skew the results.
The connection between early childhood abuse and mental distress or disorder later in life was clear. Time reports:
Overall, about 25% of participants had suffered major depression at some point in their lives and 7% had been diagnosed with PTSD. But among the 16% of participants who had suffered three or more types of child maltreatment — for example, physical abuse, neglect and verbal abuse — the situation was much worse. Most of them — 53% — had suffered depression and 40% had had full or partial PTSD.
In the addiction treatment world, we have known for decades that there is a connection between psychological disorders, substance abuse, and early childhood abuse and neglect. We see it in the wasted lives of those we treat and hear it in their stories. It is therefore heartening to have the science catch up to this understanding and show exactly how this process takes place in the brain. Of course, early childhood abuse is not a guarantee that you or someone you love will have continued psychological problems throughout life, but it is an important indicator of which to be aware.
The good news is that there is treatment for these disorders. Seek help if you need it.