Tag Archives: Effect Of Childhood Trauma On Brain

Why Trauma Survivors May Find It Hard To Learn From Past Behaviour.

Many of us who have experienced severe and protracted childhood trauma, particularly if we have gone on to be diagnosed with conditions such as complex PTSD or BPD as a result, are frequently liable to ‘act out‘  unbearable inner pain (being unable to express it in healthy ways or even to understand its origin) in ways we later regret and feel ashamed of; indeed, such feelings of shame can be intense and devastating. [Related to this concept is the theory that anger, a frequent component of ‘acting out’, may sometimes operate to soothe emotional pain.]

However, despite such regret and shame, many, too, find themselves trapped in a perpetual cycle of repeating such self-defeating, ‘acting out’ behaviours, often at a very high cost to themselves and those who trigger their trauma-related feelings (e.g. feelings of rejection). In this way, the traumatized individual seems powerless to learn from experience and past mistakes, as if driven by unconscious psychological forces beyond their control (which, without effective therapy, may indeed be the case).

THE ROLE OF FAULTY MEMORY PROCESSING :

Such apparent helplessness to learn from experience is, however, much easier to understand when we consider how the severely traumatized individual’s memory processing abilities may have been negatively affected by his/her traumatic past.

To be more specific, trauma can impair brain and memory function in a variety of different ways, including adversely affecting the functionality of a part of the brain known as the hippocampus (indeed, research has shown that those who experience severe, long-lasting trauma in childhood can develop SHRUNKEN HIPPOCAMPI due to the chronic over-stimulation of the body’s stress hormones which have, in excess concentrations, a toxic effect upon the brain and other bodily organs)

Such impairment of brain and memory function, in turn, leads to DIFFICULTIES IN TRANSFERRING MEMORIES FROM SHORT-TERM STORAGE TO LONG-TERM STORAGE and, furthermore, interferes with the brain’s ability to process and make rational sense of information. Episodic memories (memories of past personal experiences that occurred at a particular time and place) may not be properly processed which prevents a corresponding semantic memory (a form of long-term memory essential for the use and understanding of concepts and language) from being formed, making it hard for the individual to use knowledge (which, in normal circumstances, would have been gleaned from the episodic memory and have made it available to be subjected to rational analysis)) to inform and beneficially adjust future behaviour.

DISSOCIATION:

Studies also show that memory function is impaired due to the tendency of traumatized individuals, especially those suffering from complex PTSD and BDP, to dissociate when ‘acting out’ as a result of a trauma-related feeling triggered.

Both of the above (i.e.impaired memory processing ability due to organic damage and dissociation) impact on learning ability which, in turn, then, help to explain why traumatized individuals find it hard to learn from experience, particularly in the context of interpersonal conflict that mirrors early-life traumatic experiences and results in dissociated, ‘acting-out’ type behaviour). Furthermore, such individuals may also suffer from depression which is itself known to impair learning, memory and cognitive processing abilities.

Impaired memory, learning and cognitive processing ability, of course, can also interfere with other crucial areas of life, such as academic and occupational performance.

THERAPY:

Therapies that reduce stress and increase emotional resilience can help people who have been affected in this way and there exists some evidence that antidepressants can increase hippocampal volume (N.B. Always consult an appropriately qualified expert before deciding whether or not to take antidepressants).

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

Emotional Neglect And Lack Of Love In Childhood May Switch Off Crucial Genes

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Emotional Neglect And Epigenetics.

 

Studies suggest that emotional neglect / emotional deprivation and a lack of warm, affectionate, loving nurture in childhood can, in effect, switch off crucial genes that help us to regulate stress.

This is thought to be due to a phenomenon known as epigenetic modification.

 

What Is Meant By The Term ‘EPIGENETICS?’

Epigenetic modification refers to the mechanism whereby the way in which genes express themselves can be altered by external, environmental factors (and such changes are then heritable).

 

Evidence From The Study Individuals Who Had Committed Suicide :

Poulter, et al., 2008 studied the brains of individuals who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and had subsequently committed suicide. He then compared these brains to the brains of healthy individuals (who had died in accidents).

The result of this rather macabre comparison was as follows  :

In the brains of the individuals who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and had subsequently committed suicide, the genes responsible for regulating stress had been, effectively, SWITCHED OFF.

HOWEVER :

This was NOT found to be the case when the brains of the previously healthy individuals were examined.

It was concluded that the genes responsible for regulating stress in the individuals who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and had subsequently committed suicide may have shut down as A RESULT OF SEVERE STRESS DURING CHILDHOOD AND RESULTANT EPIGENETIC CHANGES

 

Another, similar study, was conducted by McGowan et al., 2009 

In this study, the researchers examined :

1) the brains suicide victims WHO HAD SUFFERED CHILDHOOD TRAUMA

and compared them with

2) the brains of deceased, mentally healthy individuals

and with

3) the brains of individuals who had committed suicide BUT HAD NOT SUFFERED FROM CHILDHOOD TRAUMA.

DNA

RESULTS :

It appeared from the results of these examinations that epigenetic changes had occurred in those who had committed suicide and had suffered childhood trauma, but NOT in those who had been mentally healthy prior to death nor in those who had committed suicide but had NOT suffered childhood trauma.

 

CONCLUSION :

These results add weight to the hypothesis that epigenetic modifications can be caused by emotional neglect / inadequate protection from stress during childhood which may, in turn, increase the risk of the affected individual developing a mental disorder and, ultimately, of committing suicide.

 

Evidence From Animal Studies

A study by Bagot et al., 2012 found that stress genes involved in the regulation of stress in newborn rats ARE SWITCHED ON BY THE ATTENTIVE LICKING AND GROOMING OF THEIR MOTHERS. So, this study, too, suggests that epigenetic changes may well be related the quality of parental care during postnatal development (although further research is required to ascertain to what degree the findings of this study can be extrapolated to humans).

 

Implications For Treatment Of Psychological Conditions Related To Childhood Trauma :

Although such research as described above is in its incipient stages, it is hoped that, as such studies accrue, new, effective and innovative ways of treating adult conditions connected to severe stress during crucial stages of early life, psychological development will be created.

 

 

eBook :

childhood-trauma-effect-on-brain

 

Above eBook ‘How Childhood Trauma Can Physically Damage The Developing Brain‘, now available for immediate download from Amazon

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

 

 

Childhood Trauma May Damage Prefrontal Cortex : How To Help Reverse Such Damage.

how to reverse damage to prefrontal cortex

We have seen from other articles that I have published on this site that severe and chronic psychological and emotional trauma in early life may adversely affect the physical development of various structures in the brain, including the prefrontal cortex. In individuals who have gone on to develop borderline personality disorder (BPD) or complex post traumatic stress disorder (cPTSD) following childhood trauma, such impairment to the brain is thought to be particularly likely.

What Is The Prefrontal Cortex And What Is Its Function?

The prefrontal cortex is a brain region located in the front of the skull (see diagram below) and its main functions include :

  • self-control in the context of social behavior
  • setting and achieving goals

reverse damage to prefrontal cortex

ABOVE : Position of frontal cortex in the brain

Evidence For Damage To The Prefrontal Cortex In Individuals Diagnosed With BPD:

MRI Studies : have shown that individuals with BPD have reduced volume in the brain’s frontal lobe and left orbitofrontal cortex (although further studies are required in order to ascertain if this link is causal).

fMRI Studies : have shown that BPD sufferers experience abnormal activation in the brain’s inferolateral prefrontal cortex in response to stimuli that generate negative emotions as well as unusually elevated levels of activation of the orbitofrontal cortex during the recollection of traumatic memories

Other Brain Imaging Studies : have suggested that BPD sufferers have an abnormally low density of neurons and abnormal neuronal function in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex as well as abnormally low blood flow to the ventrolateral right prefrontal cortex.

(More research needs to be conducted in order to shed further light upon the nature of the link between childhood trauma, BPD and impaired physiological development of the prefrontal cortex. Furthermore, there exists evidence to suggest that severe an chronic childhood trauma can adversely affect the development of other brain regions including the amygdala and the hippocampus).

Potential Adverse Effects Of Damage To The Prefrontal Cortex :

If a person incurs physiological damage to the development of their prefrontal cortex as a result of severe and protracted childhood trauma, it follows that the functions of the prefrontal cortex may be commensurately impaired, including the functions listed above (i.e. complex planning and decision making; self-control in social situations; setting and achieving goals; and impulse control).

Reversing The Damage :

We can employ various methods that mat help to reverse such damage and I list some of the main ones below :

RESOURCES :

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Above eBook now available on Amazon for immediate download. Click here for further details.

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

How The Brain Can Change And Recover From Harm.

 

Whilst the basic structure of the brain is formed by early childhood, this physical structure changes throughout life as a result of our experiences and learning.

A well known example of this is relates to a study of London taxi drivers (who undergo years of extensive training to learn their way around the London streets) ; it was found, through the use of brain scans, that as a result of this training the part of their brain that deals with spatial awareness actually increased in size.

Furthermore, many studies have demonstrated that musicians who have undertaken years of training show, as a result, both functional and structural changes to their brains.

This ability of the brain to physically change throughout life is due to a quality it possesses called neuroplasticity.

The main phases of brain development and change can be divided into 3 stages. I briefly describe each of these below:

1) The Precritical Phase: This occurs during early childhood. During this phase, the brain’s neurons (nerve cells) are formed, as are the connections between them.

These neurons communicate with each other by the process of electro-chemical signalling.

The brain consists of about 100 billion (100,000,000,000) neurons and each of these neurons may be connected up to 10,000 other neurons.

Mind-bogglingly, this means that our neurons communicate with one another via a network of about 1,000 trillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) connections (known as synaptic connections).

2) The second phase relates to the changes that occur to the brain after childhood as a result of our learning and the experiences (eg. see example of London taxi drivers above).

3) Later life : If the brain does not receive adequate stimulation, its processing ability may be adversely affected, as may memory. However, brain training exercises can help to prevent such deterioration.

BRAIN DAMAGE REVERSIBILITY:

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We have seen, in other articles that I have published on this site, that severe childhood trauma can harm the way in which the brain develops.

However, such harm to the brain is frequently reversible, at least in part. Two ways in which the brain is able to repair itself are:

– by developing new connections between neurons

– redirecting specific brain functions to alternative brain regions.

Furthermore, studies now reveal that, in certain situations, the brain is actually capable of developing new neurons.

APPLICATIONS TO ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION:

Meditation, visualisation and repeated hypnosis/self-hypnosis that enhances relaxation has been found to alter the brain in a beneficial manner. These changes help to dampen down negative emotions such as depression, anxiety and anger; also, they help both the brain and the body to heal themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

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

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