Understanding how abuse can damage young minds for life

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New research claims to provide the first clues to how areas in a child's brain may adapt to early experiences of abuse in the home, and influence emotional functioning in the long term.

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In the first functional MRI brain scan study to investigate the impact of physical abuse and domestic violence on children, scientists at University College London and the Anna Freud Centre found that family violence was associated with increased brain activity in two specific brain areas (the anterior insula and the amygdala).

Previous studies which scanned the brains of soldiers exposed to violent combat situations have shown the same pattern of heightened activation in these two areas of the brain.

In essence, children exposed to family violence show the same pattern of activity in their brains as soldiers exposed to combat, with both adapting to be ‘hyper-aware’ of danger in their environment.

The anterior insula and amygdala are also areas of the brain implicated in anxiety disorders.

Neural adaptions in these regions may help to explain why children exposed to family violence are at greater risk of developing anxiety problems later in life.

Dr Eamon McCrory, lead author from the UCL Division of Psychology and Language Sciences and the Anna Freud Centre, said, ‘We are only now beginning to understand how child abuse influences functioning of the brain’s emotional systems.’

What the scans involved

The study, which was funded by the The Economic and Social Research Council, involved 43 children having their brains scanned using a functional MRI scanner. Twenty children who had been exposed to documented violence at home were compared with 23 matched peers who had not. The average age of the maltreated child was 12 years-old and they had all been referred to local social services in London.

When the children were in the scanner they were presented with pictures of male and female faces showing sad, calm or angry expressions. The children had only to decide if the face was male or female – processing the emotion on the face was incidental. The children who had been exposed to violence at home showed increased brain activity in the anterior insula and amygdala in response to the angry faces.

All of the children studied were healthy and none were suffering from a mental health problem.

Dr McCrory said, ‘What we have shown is that exposure to family violence is associated with altered brain functioning in the absence of psychiatric symptoms and that these alterations may represent an underlying neural risk factor. We suggest these changes may be adaptive for the children in the short term but may increase longer term risk.’

He added, ‘The next step for us is to try and understand how stable these changes are. Not every child exposed to family violence will go on to develop a mental health problem; many bounce back and lead successful lives. We want to know much more about those mechanisms that help some children become resilient.’

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