Tag Archives: Childhood Trauma And Brain

So-Called ‘Low – Level’ Childhood Trauma Can Damage Brain Development

brain damage

Research conducted at the University Of Cambridge, UK, in 2014 has shown that trauma that some may regard as ‘low-level’ can adversely affect the developing brain leading to adult psychological problems (such as severe depression, anxiety and borderline personality disorder), behavioral problems (such as aggression and violence) and physical problems (such as increased risk of heart attack and stroke).

The study looked at how traumatic experiences that a group of children had suffered from between the ages of nought and eleven years had impacted on their brain development.

Information about the children’s exposure to traumatic experiences was gathered by interviewing their parents (although it is acknowledged that it is possible some parents’ reports may not have been perfectly accurate).

The effects of these traumatic experiences on the children’s brain development was measured through the use of brain imaging techniques.

The experiment found that relatively common and relatively ‘low level’ trauma can adversely affect physical brain development and disrupt the brain’s biochemical balance. These adverse effects can then make the individual’s adult life extremely difficult and problematic in ways that I have already alluded to in the first paragraph.

Examples Of Relatively Common And Relatively ‘Low – Level Traumatic Experiences’ That Can Damage The Developing Brain:

(N.B.  I place the phrase ‘low – level traumatic experiences’ in inverted commas as many would not consider them such, particularly those on the receiving end).

– recurring teasing

– recurring humiliation

– recurring shaming

– recurring blaming

– lack of affection from parents

– constant criticism (especially when never or rarely ‘counterbalanced’ with praise)

– ongoing parental discord/arguments/conflict

– parental abandonment (e.g. due to divorce or separation)

– inconsistent parenting

– growing up with a depressed parent

(the above list is not exhaustive, of course).

 

To read more about how childhood trauma can harm the brain click here.

To read how the damaged brain can repair itself click here.

 

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

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How Hypnosis Changes The Brain

childhood_trauma_hypnosis

We have seen from many of the articles that I have previously published on this site that significant childhood trauma can actually physically damage the developing human brain; in particular, it can adversely affect the development of a brain area called the amygdala, which is involved in emotional processing.

However, we have also seen that, because it is now known the brain can change itself in positive ways when we are adults (due to a property of the brain known as neuroplasticity), this damage can be reversed.

The use of mindfulness meditation has been shown in research to help the brain recovery from the physical damage done to it in childhood, and, now, recent research has shown hypnosis, too, can change the way in which the brain works and in a manner that can be detected through the use of brain scans / brain imaging.

 

HOW HYPNOSIS CHANGES THE BRAIN:

Kosslyn, a researcher from Harvard University, USA, carried out an experiment on colour perception which involved eight participants.

Each participant was shown brightly coloured rectangles and, under hypnosis, instructed to imagine the colour ‘draining’ from them. This resulted in brain activity that caused them to pereive the brightly coloured blocks as gray.

Color changes hypnosis

The reverse was also true; when instructed, under hypnosis, to ‘see’ gray blocks as brightly colored, they did indeed, due to the change in brain activity caused by hypnosis, perceive the (in reality, gray) blocks as colored.

(For those who are interested, the brain activity of the participants was measured by employing the use of PET [positron emission tomography] scans.

It is also highly important to note that when the participants were asked to perceive these color changes taking place but were NOT under hypnosis, the same changes in brain activity and color perception did NOT occur: this demonstrates that hypnosis used in the experiment was having a very real, measurable and observable (via brain scanning) effect.

This effect is thought to work, Kosslyn explains, because under hypnosis the brain’s right hemisphere, which deals with, amongst other imagination and expectations, is ACTIVATED (whereas the left hemisphere of the brain, dominant when the individual is not under hypnosis, operates more according to logic).

Kosslyn suggests that it might very well be the ability of hypnosis to activate the right hemisphere of the brain that also lies behind the success that hypnotherapy can have when it is used to treat problems such as insomnia, anxiety, pain management and other difficulties in which a person’s psychology plays a pivotal role.

 

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

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Three Critical Brain Regions Harmed By Childhood Trauma

Three critical brain regions that may be adversely affected by significant and chronic childhood trauma are :

1) The thalamus

2) The amygdala

3) The hippocampus

Below, I will briefly describe the main functions of each of these three crucial regions of the brain, together with providing a summary of the damage they may sustain to their development due early adverse experiences.

1) Possible Adverse Effects Of Childhood Trauma On The Development Of The Thalamus :

The thalamus is the part of the brain that assesses all incoming sensory data (ie. information from sound, vision, touch,  smell and taste) and then sends this information on to the appropriate, higher region of the brain for further analysis.

If a child constantly experiences trauma (for example, by frequently witnessing domestic violence perpetrated by a drunken father) the child’s thalamus can become so overwhelmed by the intensity and quantity of sense data it needs to process that it is no longer able to process it properly.

This can lead to the child’s memories of trauma becoming very fragmented.

Another effect of the thalamus being overloaded with traumatic sensory data is to shut down the cortex, resulting in impairment of rational thinking processes. Also, due to the shutting down of the cortex, many of the traumatic experiences are stored without awareness (so that they become unconscious memories).

 

Above : diagram showing the position of the thalamus, amygdala and hippocampus (together with other brain regions).

 

2) Possible Adverse Effects Of Childhood Trauma On The Development Of The Amygdala :

The amygdala is the brain region that responds to fear, threat and danger.

If a child experiences frequent fear due to childhood abuse the amygdala becomes overwhelmed by the need to process too much information. This can damage it in two main ways :

a) the amygdala becomes overactive and remains constantly ‘stuck on red alert’, leading the individual feeling constantly anxious and fearful, even at times when there is no need to feel this way, objectively speaking. An oversensitive amygdala is also thought to be a major feature of borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a serious psychiatric condition.

b) the amygdala shuts down as a way of protecting the individual from intolerable feelings of being in danger, which can have the effect of leaving the him/her feeling numb, empty, emotionally dead and dissociated.

3)  Possible Adverse Effects Of Childhood Trauma On The Development Of The Hippocampus:

The hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for long-term storage of memories. If trauma is severe, the consequential production by the body of stress hormones can have a toxic effect upon this brain area, reducing its capacity by as much as 25℅.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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Copyright 2016 Child Abuse, Trauma and Recovery

Brain Areas That May Be Adversely Affected By Childhood Trauma

BPD_and_brain_areas

We have already seen in other posts that I have published on this site that, if we have been unfortunate enough to have been subjected to severe and chronic childhood trauma, it is possible that this adversely affected how our brain physically developed during our early life.

And, if we have been particularly unlucky, this disrupted brain development could have made us highly susceptible to developing borderline personality disorder (BPD) in our adult lives.

 

Indeed, research involving brain scans suggest that sufferers of BPD can have abnormalities in the following brain areas :

– prefrontal cortex

– anterior cingulate

– medial frontal cortex

– subgenual cingulate

– ventral striatum

– ventromedial prefrontal cortex

– amygdala

 

Below : Brain Areas Which May Have Had Their Physical Development Adversely Affected By Our Traumatic Childhood Experiences, Particularly If We Have Developed Borderline Personality Disorder ( BPD) :

BPD brain

 

What Are These Brain Areas Associated With?

The function of these brain areas are described below:

PREFRONTAL CORTEX:

– decision making

– conscious control of social behaviour

– speech / writing

– logic

– purposeful (as opposed to instinctual) behaviour

– planning for the future

– expression of the personality

ANTERIOR CINGULATE :

– decision making

– heart rate

– blood pressure

– impulse control

– emotions

MEDIAL PREFRONTAL CORTEX:

– decision making

– memory

SUBGENUAL CINGULATE :

– sleep

– appetite

– anxiety

– mood

– memory

– self esteem

– transporting serotonin

– our experience of depression

VENTRAL STRIATUM :

– decision making

– emotional regulation (the control of emotios)

– the extinction of conditioned responses

AMYGDALA :

– appetite

– emotion

– emotional content of memories

– fear

The Effects Of Disruption Of The Above Brain Areas :

Poor decision making ; poor control of social behaviour ; impaired ability to think rationally ; poor planning for the future ; dysfunctional personality ; increased physiological response to stress ; poor impulse control ; poor emotional control ; insomnia ; changes in appetite ; severe anxiety ; mood instability ; low self-esteem ; impairment of the brain’s ablity to make effective use of serotonin leading to clinical depression ; changes in appetite ; emotionally charged memories leading to flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, panic attacks ; feelings of being under constant threat, fear, terror and extreme vulnerability.

Two types of therapy that may be useful are cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT).

Resources :

General Information :

NHS information about borderline personality disorder (BPD). Click here.

EBook :

brain damage caused by childhood trauma

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Self-help :

For immediate help with many of above problems click here.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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BPD And The Triune (3 Part) Brain

reptilian_brain

Our brains can be divided into three parts, as follows:

1) Reptilian Brain (also called the brain stem):

This part of our brain is the oldest in evolutionary terms, and, therefore, the most primitive. It reacts to events instinctively without conscious deliberation ; in particular, it gives rise to :

– our fight / flight / freeze / fawn responses

– our immediate biological sexual responses

Essentially, then, this part of our brain is responsible for our survival. If we feel seriously threatened, it over-rides the two other parts of our brain (see below).

Also, if we drink too much, the influence of the reptilian brain becomes more dominant, as alcohol can significantly reduce the activity of the two (mammalian and neomamallian) higher parts of the brain; when drunk, therefore, we are more likely to get into fights or indulge in promiscuous and/or unsafe sex.

2) The Mammalian Brain (also called the limbic system or midbrain)

This was the second part of our brain to evolve. It is involved in :

– the generation and experience of our emotions

– memory and other aspects of learning

3) The Neomammaliam Brain (also called the neocortex) :

This is the most recently evolved part of our brain and is involved with :

– decision making

– conscious control of social behaviour

– speech / writing

– logic

– purposeful (as opposed to instinctual) behaviour

– planning for the future

– expression of the personality

triune_brain

Which Animals Do We Share These Three Parts Of Our Brain With?

1) Reptilian Brain :

reptilian_brain

We have this part of our brain in common with crocodiles and snakes

2) Mammalian Brain :

mammalian_brain

We have this part of our brain in common with cats and dogs

3) Neomammalian Brain :

neomammalian_brain

We have this part of our brain in common with chimpanzees and gorrilas.

What Has All This Got To Do With Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)?

If we have suffered significant childhood trauma, it is possible that the physical / biological development of our brains has been adversely affected. And, if we are unlucky, and, especially, if we have a genetic susceptibility, we may, as a result, go on to develop borderline personality disorder (BPD) as adults.

Indeed, a leading theory relating to BPD, is that the brain has developed in an atypical and detrimental manner in connection with our ability to regulate our emotions and control our behaviour.

As such, the neomammalian part of the brain (responsible for conscious control of behaviour, decision -making, planning and logic) may be underactive.

AND :

The more primitive parts of the brain (the reptilian brain and the mammalian brain) may be overactive and too easily to being triggered (e.g. even a very small threat may trigger great activity in the reptilian part of the brain which is responsible for the fight or flight response.

This combination of faulty brain areas can mean that individuals with BPD experience emotions, such as anger and fear, far more frequently, and far more intensely, than the average person; and, also, have a significantly impaired ability to exercise control of their behaviour, make sensible decisions, plan for the future and think rationally.

How Can BPD Sufferers Gain More Control Over Their Feelings And Behaviour?

In order to gain greater control of their lives, it follows from the above theory that it is necessary for BPD sufferers to make the neomammalian part of the brain more dominant and to quieten the more primitive brain areas.

Research shows that an effective way to do this is to practice mindfulness meditation – if possible, on a daily basis.

Resources:

brain damage caused by childhood trauma.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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3 Ways To Repair Brain Damage Caused By Protracted Childhood Trauma

 

We have already seen in other articles that I have posted on this site that significant and protracted childhood trauma can physically damage the developing brain and have an adverse effect upon the body’s physiology as a whole. In particular, it can:

– effect the way that the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus interact

which, in turn, can:

– lead to massive over-production of stress hormones in the body such as cortisol

which results in:

a constant state of feeling under threat, extreme vulnerability, agitation, anxiety, fear and even (and I can confirm this from my own unhappy experienced) terror.

 

Because of these physical brain changes and the accompanying alteration in the body’s biology, any dysfunctional behaviours they lead to, such as disproportionately violent responses to perceived threat (to take just one example from myriad possible others), are very hard to change because of their physical underpinnings in the brain. This leads to repetitive dysfunctional behaviour that persists because it is so hard to unlearn. 

This is why people affected in this way may frustrate those closest to them by their greatly diminished capacity to learn from experience.

In effect, the childhood trauma has re-programed the brain in a particularly unhelpful manner.

Damage to other areas of the brain caused by prolonged childhood trauma also frequently lead to a sense if being ‘unreal‘, ‘cut off from reality’, ‘living life behind a thick pane of glass’, and ’emotionally dead inside’, unable to feel anything remotely positive (also known as anhedonia), including loss of feeling towards previously close ones.

repairing_damage_to_brain

It is the brain’s neuroplasticity that allows this damage to occur. However, the brain’s neuroplasticity may also be exploited to reverse the adverse effects our childhood trauma has had on our brains.

 

Exploiting Neuroplasticity To Repair The Damage To Our Brains Caused By Our Childhood Trauma:

Three main ways we can reverse this damage done to our brains may include the following:

– learning about how our childhoods have affected, on a very deep level, what we feel, how we think and behave, and how we act eg. through bibliotherapy – thus helping us to process our trauma

– medication, ECT (in extreme cases) , deep brain stimulation. (Obviously, none of these should be undertaken accept on advice of an appropriately qualified professional, usually a psychiatrist).

– undertaking experiences that make us feel safe, cared for, relaxed and loved and that make us feel these things on as deep a level as possible, as often as possible (just as the brain can be harmed by negative experience, so, too, may it be healed through positive experience eg. meditation and mindfulness).

Repair_brain_damage

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

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Childhood Stress Can Lead To Inflammation Of Brain.

stress, brain Inflammation, microgrial

Research on the brain carried out by McCarthy suggests that if a child is subjected to significant, chronic stress, particularly when the cause of this stress is unpredictable (eg due to a hostile, abusive, unstable parent prone to random explosions of terrifying rage), s/he may develop brain inflammation.

This is a recent finding – until not long ago, the prevailing wisdom was that brain inflammation could only be caused by physical damage to the brain, not psychological damage. However, this theory has now been discredited.

It now appears that when a child is exposed to the type of chronic stress described above, the action of vital cells in his/her brain (called microgrial cells) is disrupted, leading them to go haywire and run amock; it is thought that when their action is disrupted in this manner they start to destroy other neurons (brain cells) that, prior to their destruction, were beneficial to the brain.

microgrial cells brain inflammation

Research suggests that the main neurons that the microgrial cells destroy are involved in reasoning and impulse control. Therefore, of course, it follows that, due to the adverse action of microgrial cells caused by chronic stress, the individual’s ability to control his/her impulses, and to reason, will be impaired.

These rogue microgrial cells are also believed to reduce the volume of both grey and white matter in the brain, leading to anxiety, depression and even psychosis. 

And, as if this weren’t bad enough, they also seem to inhibit regeneration of neurons (brain cells) in the part of the brain known as the hippocampus; this, too, is liable to contribute yet further to mental illness.

Related Animal Study Provides Hope:

A related research study involved rats being exposed to chronic stress. This resulted, as the researches intended, the microgrial cells in the rats’ brains being damaged (as too, we have seen from the above, occurs in humans).

This resulted in the rats behaving in a highly stressed manner.

However, when the researchers reintroduced healthy microgrial cells into their brains, the rats’ observable stressed behaviour was ameliorated.

This finding provides hope that, in the future, we may be able to extrapolate from this experiment and relieve human stress related problems, where applicable, in a similar manner.

Also, meditation, properly done, has been scientifically proved to reduce inflammation.

brain_damage_caused_by_childhood_trauma

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc, PGDE(FAHE).

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How The Brain Can Change And Recover From Harm.

 

Whilst the basic structure of the brain is formed by early childhood, this physical structure changes throughout life as a result of our experiences and learning.

A well known example of this is relates to a study of London taxi drivers (who undergo years of extensive training to learn their way around the London streets) ; it was found, through the use of brain scans, that as a result of this training the part of their brain that deals with spatial awareness actually increased in size.

This ability of the brain to physically change throughout life is due to a quality it possesses called neuroplasticity.

The main phases of brain development and change can be divided into 3 stages. I briefly describe each of these below:

1) The Precritical Phase:

This occurs during early childhood. During this phase, the brain’s neurons (nerve cells) are formed, as are the connections between them.

These neurons communicate with each other by the process of electro-chemical signalling.

The brain consists of about 100 billion (100,000,000,000) neurons and each of these neurons may be connected up to 10,000 other neurons.

Mind-bogglingly, this means that our neurons communicate with one another via a network of about 1,000 trillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) connections (known as synaptic connections).

2) The second phase relates to the changes that occur to the brain after childhood as a result of our learning and the experiences (eg. see example of London taxi drivers above).

3) Later life : If the brain does not receive adequate stimulation, its processing ability may be adversely affected, as may memory. However, brain training exercises can help to prevent such deterioration.

BRAIN DAMAGE REVERSIBILITY:

images (2)

We have seen, in other articles that I have published on this site, that severe childhood trauma can harm the way in which the brain develops.

However, such harm to the brain is frequently reversible, at least in part. Two ways in which the brain is able to repair itself are:

– by developing new connections between neurons

– redirecting specific brain functions to alternative brain regions.

Furthermore, studies now reveal that, in certain situations, the brain is actually capable of developing new neurons.

APPLICATIONS TO ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION:

Meditation, visualisation and repeated hypnosis/self-hypnosis that enhances relaxation has been found to alter the brain in a beneficial manner. These changes help to dampen down negative emotions such as depression, anxiety and anger; also, they help both the brain and the body to heal themselves.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

 

 

 

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