We have already seen from other articles that I have published on this site that, according to major studies, severe and protracted childhood trauma can dramatically increase our risk in adulthood of suffering from various physical illnesses (e,g, heart disease), accelerate our physical ageing processes and reduce our life-expectancy by nineteen years.
However, additionally, research also suggests that significant trauma during childhood can speed up the ageing of the brain. It is this effect on the brain that I will consider in this article.
Mclaughlin et al. analyzed twenty-five prior studies (referred to as a meta-analysis) and found that the toxic stress generated by significant childhood trauma is linked to a reduction in the volume of the brain’s cortex (more specifically, individuals affected by childhood trauma tended to have a significantly THINNER CORTEX than average for their age. Such thinning of the cortex also takes place as one gets older, so we can infer that, in effect, childhood trauma can speed up the ageing of the brain, causing it to deteriorate prematurely.
REGION OF BRAIN ADVERSELY AFFECTED BY CHILDHOOD TRAUMA IS DETERMINED BY THE TYPE OF TRAUMA EXPERIENCED:
However, according to the research, the specific region of the cortex damaged/prematurely aged is dependent upon the type of stress and trauma that the individual has experienced. I elaborate upon this below:
Those who had experienced violence were found to have reduced volume in the ventromedial frontal cortex (VMFC).
Those who had experienced stress associated with deprivation were found to have reduced volume of the frontal-parietal region of the cortex and visual network.
In both of the above cases, reduced volume of brain matter took the form of thinning.
WHAT ARE THE FUNCTIONS OF THESE BRAIN AREAS?
The VMFC, research suggests is associated with social decision making and the processing of emotions.
The frontal-parietal lobe is associated with the processing of information relating to movement, taste, touch temperature as well as cognitive processing.
POSSIBLE EVOLUTIONARY REASONS FOR ACCELERATED AGEING OF THE BRAIN IN RESPONSE TO TRAUMA:
McLaughlin hypothesizes that there may be an evolutionary reason for accelerated ageing of the brain as a response to trauma (this is because although accelerated ageing means the brain deteriorates quicker than it would normally, prior to this it also reaches its optimum level of development). For example, suggests McLaughlin, the ability to process emotions peaking at an earlier age than average (linked to the increased rate of development/ageing of the VMFC in response to traumatic experiences of violence – see above) may help young people protect themselves from threats and dangers they might face.
Katie McLaughlin et al. 2020 “Biological Aging in Childhood and Adolescence Following Experiences of Threat and Deprivation: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Harvard University. Psychological Bulletin.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).