Research carried out by Carrion et al.(2016) suggests that the experience of childhood trauma affects boys and girls differently.
More specifically, childhood trauma appears to have different effects on male and female brains.
The research involved 59 young people between the ages of nine years and seventeen years.
Using brain scans it was found that girls with PTSD had a smaller anterior circular sulcus (part of the brain region known as the INSULA) than girls without PTSD.
The brain’s insula is thought to be involved in various functions including sensorimotor functions, social and emotional processing, decision making, compassion, and high-level attention.
Because this part of the brain reduces in size as an adolescent (male or female) gets older, the results of the brain scan of the girls may be interpreted as suggesting that the stress of early life trauma had caused the brain region to prematurely age (this idea is supported by the finding that traumatized girls, on average, experience puberty earlier than would normally be expected).
In contrast, this was not found to be the case amongst boys with PTSD. In fact, the contrary was found. In boys with PTSD, this part of the brain was actually larger than in boys without PTSD.
An overview of the recent research conducted on how males and females are affected differently by trauma was carried out by Helpman et al. (2017) and it was found that the studies reviewed suggested that, in the case of boys, trauma in early life may result in a reduction of gray matter in the brain’s limbic system, including the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala. Furthermore, these studies also suggested that trauma in the early life of males is associated with overactivity in the anterior cingulate insular and ventral anterior insular (i.e. frontal insular) cortices (sometimes referred to as salience hubs) that make up the salience network in the brain.
However, in the case of girls, the studies reviewed by Helpman et al. suggested that exposure to trauma in early life may result in an enlarged and overactive amygdala and a decrease in the connectivity between salience hubs.
Given these findings, the researchers suggested that girls and boys may display different symptoms from one another and, therefore, may require different forms of therapeutic intervention.
Research suggests that meditation can increase the thickness of the insula and increase the amount of gray matter in the brain region (Fox et al., 2014; Lazar et al.,2005).
Carrion et al. (2016). The moderating effects of sex on insula subdivision structure in youth with posttraumatic stress symptoms. November 2016 Depression and Anxiety 34(1)
Fox, Kieran C.R.; Nijeboer, Savannah; Dixon, Matthew L.; Floman, James L.; Ellamil, Melissa; Rumak, Samuel P.; Sedlmeier, Peter; Christoff, Kalina (June 2014). “Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners”. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 43: 48–73.
Helpman L, Zhu X, Suarez-Jimenez B, Lazarov A, Monk C, Neria Y. Sex Differences in Trauma-Related Psychopathology: a Critical Review of Neuroimaging Literature (2014-2017). Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2017;19(12):104. Published 2017 Nov 8. doi:10.1007/s11920-017-0854-y
Lazar SW, Kerr CE, Wasserman RH, Gray JR, Greve DN, Treadway MT, McGarvey M, Quinn BT, Dusek JA, Benson H, Rauch SL, Moore CI, Fischl B (2005). “Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness”. NeuroReport. 16 (17): 1893–7.
Lucina Q. Uddin, Jason S. Nomi, and Olivier Boucher. Structure and functions of the human insula. Journal of clinical neurophysiology.
Seeley WW. The Salience Network: A Neural System for Perceiving and Responding to Homeostatic Demands. J Neurosci. 2019 Dec 11;39(50):9878-9882. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1138-17.2019. Epub 2019 Nov 1. PMID: 31676604; PMCID: PMC6978945.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE (FAHE).
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