Tag Archives: Anterior Insula

Strong Feelings Of Guilt In Childhood Can Affect Brain Development

Research suggests that children who are prone to feelings of intense, excessive guilt are at increased risk in adulthood of developing various psychiatric disorders. These include :

   – bipolar disorder

   – depression

   – anxiety

   – obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

A longitudinal study (Belden et al.), published in JAMA Psychiatry, involved a group of 306 children of school age identified (through primary caretaker reports) those from the group who had a propensity towards showing excessive signs of experiencing guilt.

When brain scans of the children were undertaken it was found that, of the original group of 306 children, those who had been identified as being prone to suffering excessive guilty feelings during their childhoods had, on average, SIGNIFICANTLY SMALLER ANTERIOR INSULAE than the children from the group who had NOT shown signs of excessive feelings of guilt during their childhoods.


What is the anterior insula and what are its functions?

The anterior insula, part of the brain’s insular cortex and involved in the brain’s limbic system, plays a large role, amongst other functions, in our subjective emotional experience, including compassion and empathy, as well as in our self-awareness and interpersonal experience.

The anterior insula and psychopathology

In relation to its involvement with how we experience our emotions, the anterior insula is also involved in psychopathology (various mental disorders). Indeed, anterior insulae that are of significantly reduced size have been linked to schizophrenia, depression, anxiety disorders.


It was inferred from the above that extreme feelings of guilt in childhood are associated with smaller anterior insulae which, in turn, increases the risk of the later development of mental disorders such as depression.


This study adds weight to existing research that has previously shown a link between feelings of extreme guilt in childhood and the later development of psychopathology, especially internalizing mental disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Therefore, if a child is suffering from extreme guilt feelings, early therapeutic intervention is vital in order to reduce the risk of the development of further psychiatric problems in later life.

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




Brains Of Children Exposed To Domestic Violence Affected In Similar Way To Exposure To Combat


A study carried out at University College London (UCL) has found that when a child is continually exposed to domestic violence, such as the father regularly beating the mother, their brains are negatively affected in a similar way to how the brains of soldiers are affected by exposure to combat in war.

As a result, the children’s brains may become HYPERSENSITIVE TO PERCEIVED THREAT, or, to put it informally, ‘stuck on red alert.’  This, in turn, may lead to the child becoming trapped in a distressing state of hypervigilance and extreme wariness/distrust of others.


The research study which discovered this entailed children being shown pictures of angry/threatening faces whilst undergoing a brain scan and from this it was found that their emotional response to these faces was far more intense than was the emotional response of another group of children who were from stable backgrounds (known as the ‘control group’) who underwent the same procedure.

Specifically, the brain scans revealed that the children who had been exposed to domestic violence showed unusually high activity levels in two parts of the brain when shown the pictures of the angry/threatening faces, namely: 1) The anterior insula and 2) The amygdala, when compared to the children shown exactly the same pictures but whom had had a stable, loving and protected childhood.


Similarity to effect of exposure to combat on the brain:

Such increased activity in these two brain regions has also been found to occur, from previous research, in the brains of soldiers who have experienced protracted exposure to armed conflict.

Short-term benefits but long-term losses:

One of the psychological researchers involved in the UCL study pointed out that this changed brain activity may be helpful to children who live in homes where there is domestic violence in the short-term by helping them to avoid danger.

However, in the long-term, the changes may cause the individual severe problems – for example, as an adult the individual may constantly overestimate the degree of danger that other people present to him/ her. In turn, this may lead that same individual to be prone to becoming disproportionately aggressive towards those s/he perceives to be a threat to him/her.

The individual, too, may perceive threats where they, in reality, do not exist due to his/ her constant wariness of others together with a pervasive sense of paranoia.


The researchers involved in this study also drew our attention to the fact that not all children who are exposed to domestic violence develop the kind of mental disturbance described above and that more research needs to be conducted in order to ascertain which factors contribute to this resilience.

Anxiety and depression:

Research also shows that children exposed to domestic violence are at significantly increased risk of developing anxiety and depression (click here to read my article on this); indeed, both the anterior insula and the amygdala play a prominent role in the generation of anxiety disorders.

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


Childhood Trauma Recovery