Trauma And Brain Development
How are early life trauma and brain development related?
Recently, there have been various cutting-edge studies into the neurological effects of child abuse and child neglect- in other words, how childhood trauma has been shown to damage the developing physical brain.
It has been shown that BEHAVIOURAL PROBLEMS, following childhood trauma, can be scientifically traced back in origin to damage, caused by child abuse, neglect etc., to both the brain’s PHYSICAL STRUCTURE and its CHEMISTRY. As well as behavioural problems resulting from this damage, it has also been shown to impair the sufferer’s ability to LEARN.
Indeed, it has been estimated that about 75% of children in the care system could have suffered such adverse effects on the physical brain following their particular traumas.
THE POSITIVE NEWS
This is all very depressing; however, there is also good news: the damage that the brain has suffered is NOT ALWAYS PERMANENT. If therapeutic interventions are made, especially when the brain is still developing during childhood, the brain is able, to some extent (due to its plasticity), to rewire itself in such a way that development can return much closer to the norm than it would have done without such intervention. The intervention needs to include the child being given a loving, secure, stable and supportive environment.
In general, the more protracted and intense the childhood trauma, the more serious the damaging effects on the physical brain will have been.
Above – Trauma and brain development: An illustration of how childhood trauma can seriously, adversely affect physical development of the brain
WHICH BRAIN REGIONS ARE AFFECTED?
Severe and prolonged childhood trauma has been demonstrated to potentially damage:
a) THE CORTEX (the function of the cortex is to facilitate RATIONAL THINKING).
b) THE HIPPOCAMPUS (the function of the hippocampus is, in part, to facilitate the REGULATION of our EMOTIONS).
Given that these regions of the brain are sometimes damaged by childhood trauma, and given the function of these regions, we need hardly be surprised that if we have suffered childhood trauma we might find ourselves behaving IRRATIONALLY at times and finding it very difficult to CONTROL OUR EMOTIONS.
Indeed, in one study it was found those who had suffered childhood trauma were much more likely to have:
a) an underdeveloped cortex
b) a smaller hippocampus
Further studies have found that another brain area, the AMYGDALA (which also has a very prevalent role in regulating our emotions) becomes OVERSENSITIVE and OVERACTIVE in those who have suffered childhood trauma. As a result, it will often signal extreme danger – putting us constantly on ‘red-alert’, as it were – even when, in objective terms, there is no, or very little, danger threatening us. Our fear response, then, operates on a hair-trigger.
HOW BRAIN CHEMISTRY IS AFFECTED BY CHILDHOOD TRAUMA:
Studies have also found that prolonged and severe STRESS in early life can also affect the production of chemicals (also known as neurotransmitters) in the brain. For example:
a) CORTISOL (which regulates stress)
b) SEROTONIN (which is closely tied to MOOD and BEHAVIOUR)
Dysfunction of these chemicals leads, respectively, to:
a) us becoming far more susceptible and far more likely to be adversely affected by stress
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).