We have seen in other articles I have published on this site that severe and protracted childhood trauma can increase the risk of damage to particular brain regions (e.g. the amygdala) and, in so doing, increase our risk of being diagnosed with various psychiatric conditions during adulthood such as complex PTSD and borderline personality disorder (BPD). It is hypothesized that this occurs due to the adverse effect severe, chronic stress has on our biological functioning thus disrupting the body’s regulatory processes.
Indeed, this dysregulation not only increases the risk of psychiatric conditions such as those mentioned above (as well as, for example, depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, addiction) but also physical conditions such as heart disease and increased risk of premature death).
The brain is at especially high risk of being adversely affected by trauma at particular stages of development or what has been termed developmental epochs.
During developmental epochs, the brain carries out a process called ‘pruning’ or, more specifically, ‘synaptic pruning’, with particular alacrity.
Synaptic pruning is a natural process that eliminates (‘prunes’) the brain’s unused synapses (synapses are connections between neurons permitting them to electro-chemically communicate with one another) or synapses that are no longer sufficiently utilized to keep them active.
The number of synapses in the brain reaches a maximum level at about the age of two years. Synapses that have, and continue to be, highly active are strengthened whereas those that have received only very low levels of activation, and continue to do so, are weakened – it is the weakest that are ‘pruned.’
A major factor that affects which synapses are pruned is the young person’s experiences, including, of course, severe and chronic traumatic experiences (although genes also play a crucial role in very early life).
AGES 2-10 YEARS (APPROX):
About half of the child’s synapses are pruned away. This is the period of life during which the process of synaptic pruning is at its most accelerated.
Significant pruning takes place during early adolescence and then again during late adolescence.
Synaptic pruning continues to occur at a significant rate into (approx) the mid-twenties.
Childhood Trauma And Effect Upon Genes:
Skelton et al., 2011 conducted research that suggested that childhood trauma, when serious and protracted enough, can actually adversely affect the genes that regulate basic body symptoms. Without adequate therapy, the impaired self-regulation may last well into adulthood or even for a whole lifetime. The process by which gene expression may be interfered with in this way is known as epigenetics. To read more about epigenetics you may wish to read my previously published article entitled: Can Childhood Trauma Be Genetically Passed On To Future Generations?
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)