Tag Archives: Childhood Trauma And Brain Development

More on How Trauma and Stress can Affect the Child’s Developing Brain.

structural -abnormalities- in- brains-of-trauma-survivors


Our brains developed over millions of years of evolution. Different parts of the modern human brain evolved at different periods of this enormous time span.

The most primitive part of the modern brain, which evolved first, is known, rather unflatteringly, as the REPTILIAN brain. This part of our brain is ‘in charge’ of BASIC SURVIVAL PROCESSES such as the physiological aspects of the well-known FIGHT/FLIGHT RESPONSE such as heart rate (click here to read my article entitled : ‘ Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn.’

In contrast, the part of our brain which developed most recently (the NEOCORTEX) is involved with HIGHER LEVEL PROCESSING such as complex learning, talking and forming relationships with others.

Children who experience CHRONIC and SEVERE TRAUMA as they are growing up automatically UTILIZE THE MORE PRIMITIVE PART OF THE BRAIN FAR MORE THAN NORMAL as they are driven by the adverse environment that they inhabit to FOCUS ON SURVIVAL

This comes at the expense of the development of the regions of the brain concerned with higher level mental functioning – indeed, this part of the brain can become SIGNIFICANTLY UNDER-UTILIZED, thus IMPAIRING ITS DEVELOPMENT. This can lead to the child:

– developing a brain which is smaller than normal

– developing less neural connection in the parts of the brain involved with higher level mental processing.

In short, then, the primitive part of the brain becomes OVER-EXERCISED, whilst the part of the brain which has most recently evolved becomes UNDER-EXERCISED.


The three regions of the brain shown above evolved at different times in our evolutionary history – the most primitive part is called the REPTILLIAN BRAIN and controls our basic survival mechanisms. The most recently evolved part is the NEOCORTEX which is involved in higher level mental processes such as abstract thought.




This results in the child becoming HYPER-SENSITIVE to the ADVERSE EFFECTS OF STRESS.

Because of this, such a child is far less able to deal with stress (ie s/he has a far lower stress- tolerance threshold) than children who have been fortunate enough to grow up in a more benign environment (all else being equal).


Such dramatic responses are especially likely if the triggering event reminds the child, however tangentally, of the original experience of trauma.

Children suffering from such a condition may:

– have great difficulty concentrating/focussing their attention

– experience high levels of restlessness and agitation

– have high levels of anxiety

– behave aggressively/violently when under stress

– bully others (often, subconsciously, to gain a sense of control in a world in which they feel essentially powerless).



If the child develops PTSD as a result of his/her traumatic experiences his/her body will develop a chronic tendency to OVER-PRODUCE STRESS HORMONES (eg cortisol) on a day-to-day basis which may INTERFERE WITH HIS/HER ABILITY TO LEARN.



– dissociation (‘zoning out’) – click here to read my article on this

– arrested development (eg suddenly stops talking)

– nightmares/night terrors

– frequent waking during the night

– violent play (eg acting out violent scenarios with toys)

– frequent drawing/painting of extremely violent scenes

– bed wetting

– somatic complaints (eg stomach aches, headaches etc)

– anxiety/depression

– general behavioural problems

– problem drinking/drug use



However, the positive news is that, because of an innate quality of the brain called NEUROPLASTICITY (click here to read my article on this), it is able to repair and ‘rewire’ itself, thus reversing the damage done in childhood. The following experiences may help this to happen:

– physical activity

– the development of new skills

– relaxation and avoidance of stress

– healthy, pleasurable experiences

– the development of warm, emotionally fulfilling relationships

– enjoyable social activity

On the other hand, the following are likely to hinder recovery:

– continued exposure to stress

– substance misuse

(Click here to read more about this).



Above eBook now available on Amazon for immediate download. Other titles also available. CLICK HERE.

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


Mending The Mind : Self-Directed Neuroplasticity


We can use our own mind (which, for the sake of not over-complicating matters, I’ll define here as our conscious thought processes, feelings and experiences) to physically alter our brains, which, in turn, alters how our mind works. This is sometimes known as self-directed neuroplaticity.

This can lead to a positive feedback loop or a negative feedback loop (as well as anything inbetween). In this article I want to concentrate upon how we can develop a positive feedback loop.


The physical brain is in a constant state of flux. Changes to it can be both TEMPORARY and LONG-LASTING. Let’s look at each of these types of physical changes in turn:


a) changes in how the brain’s neurons (cells) are firing at any given time

b) the concentration of different types of neurochemicals (eg. a low concentration of the neurochemical serotonin is associated with the mental experience of depression)

c) changes in the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide that the brain is receiving (this is why taking deep breaths, or learning deep breathing exercises, helps to make us feel calm and why hyperventilating makes us feel even more panicked than whatever it was that led us to hyperventilate in the first place).

d) changes in glucose levels being delivered to the brain



Through therapies such as repeated self-hypnosis, the regular practice of mindfulness and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), we can make long-lasting, beneficial, physical changes to our brains

In effect, such self-directed neuroplasticity techniques ‘feed’ particular brain regions with an increased level of blood/nutrients, which, in turn, has a positive effect upon our state of mind (eg reducing feelings of depression and anxiety).

In other words, non-physical thoughts and feelings induced by the therapies mentioned above have a beneficial, physical effect on the brain which, in turn, improves how we feel – this is the POSITIVE FEEDBACK LOOP I referred to earlier in this article.

Ways in which this happens include :

a) NEURONS THAT FIRE TOGETHER WIRE TOGETHER. By increasing neural activity in specific brain regions (through our chosen therapeutic technique – see above) the neurons’ connections (synapses) are strengthened, and new connections (synapses) are formed

b) Over time mental practices like mindfulness etc can thicken the part of the brain known as the CORTEX

c) Therapies like mindfulness etc can increase the level of activation in the LEFT PREFRONTAL LOBES

d) Such therapies can also lower the production of CORTISOL (cortisol is a stress hormone – if, when we are under great stress over an extended period of time, too much of it is produced it can damage a part of the brain known as the HIPPOCAMPUS which, amongst other functions, is involved in memory)

e) GAMMA RANGE BRAINWAVES can be strengthened by therapies like mindfulness

f) Such therapies can also thicken a small region of the brain known as the INSULA, which is involved in how we feel about our existence.


When we use therapies like repeated self-hypnosis, mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for the purposes of self-directed neuroplasticity the changes in the brain occur incrementally (proceeding gradually in small steps which build upon one another), rather than suddenly and dramatically.


– Mindfulness Training MP3. CLICK HERE.

– My book below, entitled ‘How Childhood Trauma Can Physically Damage The Developing Brain – And How These Effects Can Be Reversed’ is now available on Amazon for immediate download. $4.79. CLICK HERE.



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

Neuroplasticity : 3 Ways Brain Can Physically Recover From Trauma



I have previously written articles on how early life trauma can adversely affect the physical development of the brain leading to, for example, psychological difficulties in adulthood such as finding it hard to control our emotions and finding it difficult to cope with stress (eg click here).

I have also written about how the brain can, to some extent, physically repair itself (eg click here) by a process known as NEUROPLASTICITY.

In this article I want to take a more detailed look at how neuroplasticity might work to enable our brains to overcome the physical effects on it of our childhood traumatic experiences.

We now know that the brain’s circuitory is not, as used to be thought, ‘hard wired’, but changes over the course of our lives, INCLUDING ADULTHOOD, as a result of new experiences. Specific ways in which these physical changes to the brain might occur in adulthood include :







Let’s consider each of these in turn :


Studies on rats have conclusively demonstrated that, over the course of their adult lives, they can grow new brain cells (neurons) which has the effect of changing their ability to process information. However, it is still not certain whether the same process occurs in humans – further research needs to be conducted.

Synaptic plasticity :

This refers to the fact that a process takes place in the adult brain whereby connections between neurons (brain cells) become strengthened and enhanced. Many studies have confirmed this beneficial process.

Synaptogenesis :

This refers to the process by which NEW connections are formed between neurons (brain cells). Studies show the process definitely occurs in animals, and it is likely that it also occurs in humans.


Practicing particular activities has been shown in studies to strengthen connections between the brain cells (neurons) in the specific brain region which is involved in the execution of that task.

The therapy MINDFULNESS takes advantage of this, improving our ability to relax and conquer stress and anxiety (click here to read my article on mindfulness).


A famous study showing how neuroplasticity works involved looking at London taxi drivers who trained intensely for many years to learn the layout of the streets of London. By the time they had completed the training, the grey matter in their HIPPOCAMPUS (the part of the brain which deals with navigating and spatial awareness) had SIGNIFICANTLY INCREASED IN DENSITY.




Above eBook now available for instant download from Amazon. Click here for further details.

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





Why Adolescence is a Time of High Vulnerability.


Contrary to what used to be believed, we now know, through neurological research, that, during adolescence, the brain is still EXTREMELY PLASTIC (in this context, the word ‘plastic‘ means that the brain is susceptible to physical change in response to environmental factors.

This makes the period of adolescence a time of particular vulnerability.


Often, adolescence is a time of emotional dysregulation (difficulty in managing emotions). The adolescent can have dramatically fluctuating emotions, be moody, poor at making decisions, impulsive, sensation-seeking and a high risk-taker. Furthermore, approval from others is especially important during this period of life, so adolescents also tend to be very vulnerable to peer-pressure; this can make them even more likely to take risks (eg to impress friends).


The prefrontal cortex is a region of the brain that is involved in :

decision making

– long-term planning

impulse control

– delaying gratification

However, during adolescence, this brain region IS NOT YET FULLY DEVELOPED.


Above : Adolescence can be a time of high risk-taking. This has both neurological and evolutionary explanations.

This means that adolescents are especially likely to be HIGH RISK TAKERS. This is made even more likely due to the fact that the ‘REWARD CENTRE’ in the brain of adolescents is more active than it is in children and adults. This leads the adolescent to OVERESTIMATE THE REWARDS RISK TAKING WILL PRODUCE, further increasing the probability s/he will take risks (eg unprotected sex, excessive drinking, taking elicit and potentially harmful drugs, fast and dangerous driving etc).


ABOVE : Another example of high risk-taking behaviour amongst young people.


It is likely that risk-taking behaviour evolved in adolescents amongst our ancestors in order to make the individual open to new experiences and situations, thus making it more likely that s/he will be willing to leave the relative safety of being cared for by parents and start to live independently.


It has been strongly argued by various parties representing the interests of young people that the lack of development of the prefrontal cortex in adolescents, together with other factors mentioned above, should be taken into account when trying to assess the extent of their culpability when they commit certain crimes. However, this conundrum is still far from being fully resolved.



eBook :



Above eBook now available on Amazon for immediate download. CLICK HERE FOR FURTHER DETAILS.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

Childhood Trauma, Stress and the Vulnerable Developing Brain

childhood trauma, psychopathy

Both studies conducted on animals and humans conclusively reveal that long-term and severe stress have a harmful effect upon the brain. If the brain is harmed in such a manner, an individual’s chances of developing mental illness is considerably increased. However, there is also good news : if the brain incurs such damage, this is frequently reversible (click here to read an article I previously wrote relating to this phenomenon).

Because the brain is still developing during childhood and adolescence, and its physical structure more ‘plastic’ (ie more susceptible to being changed)  than in adulthood,it is particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of stress during these periods (it is most vulnerable of all during infancy which is why these earliest years are of such critical importance).

brain_stress   effects_of_stress_on_brain

Above. The grey circle on the second diagram shows the part of the brain in which stress can cause executive functioning to partially shut down. The red circle shows the part of the brain in which stress activates the fear/ ‘fight or flight response.’

How severe and protracted the experience of stress during childhood will influence the degree of damage the developing brain suffers. The stressors themselves are varied ; they include poverty, neglect and abuse, or, indeed, a combination of these.


There have been literally hundreds of animal studies showing that stress can have a harmful effect upon the brain. For example, research on rats placed in high stress environments shows that both the structure and function of their hippocampus (the human brain, too, has a hippocampus ; the structure is involved in the stress response) is adversely affected.

Furthermore, similar studies show that when rats are deprived of proper maternal care their hippocampus is similarly damaged.

Other studies, also involving rats, show that when they are placed in impoverished environments (ie environments in which there is no stimulation), again there is a harmful effect on the structure and functioning of their brains.


However, the good news is that these adverse effects on the rats’ brains, caused by the various stressors described above, are, at least in part, reversible. This reversing process can be achieved by transferring the rats from an impoverished environment to a stimuli rich environment, or transferring the rats deprived of maternal care into the care of a female rat that licks and grooms them, for example.


It appears we can extrapolate from the findings of such animal studies described above and apply them to humans. Indeed, human studies have demonstrated that children who grow up in poverty, and have to cope with the stress of having little mental stimulation, can also incur harm to the structure and functioning of their brains, in particular, in relation to their prefrontal cortex and hippocampus.

Furthermore, it has been found that those children who are exposed to significant abuse will tend to have a lower brain volume than their peers who did not experience such abuse.

However, in humans, too, such damage appears to  be reversible (click here to read my article related to this).


It appears that, in humans, different parts of the brain are particularly susceptible to damage at different stages of the young person’s life. For example :

Between the ages of 3 years old and 5 years : the hippocampus appears to be particularly vulnerable.

Between the ages of 14 and 16 years : the prefrontal cortex appears to be particularly vulnerable.


It is also now known that if a child is potentially being damaged by a highly stressful environment, the earlier intervention takes place to alleviate the stress, the more likely it is that any harm that has already been done to the brain can be reversed.


Research has also found that such damage incurred by the human brain as described above may well not be immediately apparent. Indeed, it can take many years for the adverse effects to reveal themselves.


Above eBook now available on Amazon for immediate download.  CLICK HERE.

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

Effect of Early Trauma on Brain’s Right Hemisphere Development.

damage to right hemisphere of brain

As recently as 25 years ago, it was still frequently believed that the structure of the brain had already been genetically determined at birth. Now, however, we of course know that this is absolutely NOT the case. Indeed, the experience, in early life, of trauma, abuse or neglect can have a profoundly adverse effect upon both the brain’s chemistry and its architecture (ie the way in which its physical structure develops).

The diagram below shows the human brain’s left and right hemispheres together with some of each hemisphere’s particular functions.


effect of childhood trauma on brain development


Studies on animals can help us to understand the effects of trauma on the developing human brain. For instance, if animals are subjected to inescapable stress they develop behaviours such as :

   – abnormal alarm states

   – acute sensitivity to stress

   – problems relating to both learning and memory

   – aggression

   – withdrawal

The symptoms listed above are, in fact, very similar to those displayed in humans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In both the cases of humans and of animals, investigations suggest that prolonged exposure to stress adversely affects a vital brain system ( the NORADRENERGIC BRAIN SYSTEM).

Indeed, in humans it has been found that even in adults (let alone children) just one exposure to severe trauma (eg a terrifying battle) can significantly alter an adult’s brain and lead to PTSD.


Drissen et al (2000) found that those who had suffered severe childhood trauma had smaller volumes of two vital brain structures which play a role in stress management; the two structures physically affected by trauma were :



On average, those who had experienced severe childhood trauma were found to have :

  – amydalae which were 16% smaller than those who had not experienced significant trauma

   – hippocampuses which were 8% smaller than those who had not experienced significant childhood trauma.

Further research by Shore (2001) has shown that the brain’s right hemisphere (see diagram of the brain’s right and left hemispheres above), which has deep connections into the limbic and autonomic nervous systems, is impaired in terms of its ability to regulate these systems properly;  leading to profound difficulties managing stress  in those who had suffered serious childhood trauma.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

Recovery: How the Brain can ‘Rewire’ Itself (Neuroplasticity).


Childhood Trauma And The Brain :

Severe childhood trauma can adversely affect the way in which the brain develops, leading to, for example, extremes in anxiety or great difficulty in controlling emotions. However, there has been exciting research conducted showing that the brain is able, under certain conditions, to ‘rewire’ itself, correcting its own faulty circuitry, and, thus, alleviating the behavioral and emotional problems caused by the original damage.

The adult brain is much more changeable and modifiable than had previously been believed. There is now a large amount of evidence to show that damaged neural (brain) circuitry resulting from severe childhood trauma can be corrected, reshaping our brain anatomy and consequent behavior, with the right kind of therapeutic interventions. In other words, it is now clear that brain architecture continues to change throughout adulthood and this can be manipulated in highly beneficial directions.

Many people who suffer extreme childhood trauma go on to develop personality disorders as adults; one hallmark of these disorders is rigid, destructive behavioural patterns. Research is now showing, however, that certain therapeutic interventions, due to neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change itself), can change those behaviours to become more flexible and adaptive (helpful in creating a more successful life).

Another problem those who have suffered extreme childhood trauma  develop later on is extreme and obsessive worry which can be so severe it is pathologically categorized as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). For the purposes of explaining how neuroplasticity works, let’s take that (ie OCD) as our example of a problem which needs to be alleviated.

With OCD, obsessive worries can become so extreme that the person experiencing them becomes actively suicidal. Such a tortured state of mind can persist for months or even (as in my own case) years. Indeed, one suicide attempt nearly killed me and I even underwent electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) — to no avail, most regretably (see the ‘My Story’ category if you want to read a bit more about this profoundly distressing period of my life). When anxiety is this pathological, medications may dampen the symptoms somewhat, but, this, of course, fails to address the root psychological cause of the problem.

With this kind of anxiety, terrible and terrifying events are unremittingly anticipated – whether these are largely imagined or not is not the point : the problem is that the threats FEEL real. When something truly appalling is even remotely possible, in the mind of the individual experiencing obsessional anxiety, it FEELS INEVITABLE.

Neuroplasticity-Based Treatment :

In order to address such life-threatening (due to risk of suicide) conditions, the psychologist Jeffrey Schwartz has developed a NEUROPLASTICITY-BASED TREATMENT; it has already yielded excitingly successful results.

To understand his form of treatment, let’s first examine the theory of why those suffering from OCD become mentally fixated on their intense anxieties.

Schwartz, first of all, compared the brains of those who suffered from OCD with the brains of those who did not (by taking scans). After he delivered his form of psychotherapy, he took the scans again which revealed the brains of the patients had normalized.

In ‘normal’ people, when something goes wrong, there is a period of anxiety which gradually wears off. However, with OCD sufferers, the period of anxiety is not only much more intense but also maintains an iron mental grip on the sufferer – the individual becomes ‘stuck’ in this intense anxiety phase. So what is going on in neurological terms?

Schwartz generously enlightened us in the following manner :

1) When something anxiety inducing occurs, a region of the brain, known as the ORBITAL FRONTAL CORTEX, is alerted. Activity in this region of the brain is far greater in those who suffer OCD – it becomes HYPERACTIVE.

2) A chemical message is then sent from that brain region to another brain region – the CINGULATE GYRUS, triggering the anxiety response. IN PEOPLE WITH OCD, the activity here is, again, far more than normally intense. Crucially, too, in people with OCD, the intense activity in this brain region STAYS ‘LOCKED ON’ (as if the ‘ON SWITCH’ which has activated it CANNOT BE ‘SWITCHED OFF’). Indeed, Schwartz referred to this phenomenon as ‘BRAIN LOCK’. (In ‘normal’ individuals the activity in the stimulated brain regions gently fades away, as the brain designed it to do).

The treatment Schwartz developed is designed to ‘UNLOCK’, and normalize, the manner in which the brain’s circuitry works.

THE FIRST STEP in the therapy is for the OCD sufferer to RELABEL what s/he is experiencing AS A SYMPTOM OF HIS/HER OCD. S/he should remind him/herself that it is ‘just’ the neurological malfunctioning (the ‘brainlock’) which is the true cause of his/her discomfort, NOT the content of the anxiety itself. This relabeling provides some mental distance from the content of the obsessive concern. The more the person can concentrate on the physiological reasons for the feeling of distress, and the more s/he can distance her/himself from its actual content, the more effective the therapy tends to be.

Once this has been acknowledged, THE SECOND STEP is to REFOCUS THE ATTENTION ON SOMETHING POSITIVE and, ideally, pleasure-inducing.

As the person gets better at implementing these steps, new brain circuits start to develop : the obsessive circuits begin to be bypassed. Of course, changes do not materialize instantaneously – the brain takes time to ‘rewire’ itself.

If the person finds implementing the above two steps difficult to do, s/he should remind him/herself that even distancing him/herself from the content of the anxiety and doing something pleasurable instead for just one minute will help develop the beneficial new brain circuitry.

Two rather pithy sayings, often quoted by psychologists, help us to remember the theory behind the therapy :

– ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’

– ‘neurons that fire apart, wire apart’

To end this post with an encouraging statistic, it is worth recording that 80% of Schwartz’s patients got better when this therapy was combined with medication.




Above eBooks now available on Amazon for immediate download.CLICK HERE.


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