Bloomberg News

Child Abuse May Alter Structure of the Brain, Research Shows

December 06, 2011

Dec. 5 (Bloomberg) -- Teenagers who were abused as young children show changes in their brains that put them at risk for behavioral problems in adulthood, according to research from Yale University.

Brain scans of adolescents who suffered physical abuse and neglect showed differences in the part that controls executive function -- mental processes such as planning, organizing and focusing on details -- according to a study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. Changes were also seen in brain areas that regulate emotions and impulses, the study said.

About 3.7 million U.S. children are assessed for child abuse or neglect each year, but the number may be higher as many cases don’t come to the attention of professionals, the authors said. The research, which evaluated teenagers who hadn’t been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, suggests abuse or neglect victims be monitored to reduce the risk of disorders like depression and addiction, researchers said.

“What these findings show is that experiences that people have early in life can really subsequently and fundamentally alter the way their brain develops,” said Philip Fisher, who wrote an accompanying editorial in the journal. “These kids, in spite of the fact that they didn’t have actual disorders, have the potential to be very vulnerable for problems over the course of their development.”

Human brains continue to develop through early adulthood, particularly the area that regulates emotions and executive function, said Fisher, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Oregon and a senior scientist at the Oregon Social Learning Center in Eugene, in a Dec. 2 telephone interview.

Gender Differences

The study included 42 kids ages 12 to 17 who didn’t have a psychiatric diagnosis. The researchers used questionnaires to determine if the children suffered from physical abuse, physical neglect, emotional abuse, emotional neglect and sexual abuse. They then took images of their brains using MRI.

Scans showed that girls were more likely to have differences in brain areas related to emotional processing, making them more vulnerable to mood disorders like depression, while boys had changes to areas for impulse control, which could make them more vulnerable to drug and alcohol addictions, said study author Hilary Blumberg, an associate professor of psychiatry and diagnostic radiology in the Child Study Center at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.

Neglected Children

Brain alterations occurred in both adolescents who suffered abuse as well as neglect, the research found. The study didn’t show distinct patterns in the brains of children who were sexually abused, although Blumberg said that may be because the number of children who were sexually abused was small.

“It was very important to see the findings with regard to neglect,” Blumberg said in a Dec. 2 interview. “That was an area that had been little studied.”

Researchers are continuing to follow these teens to see if they develop behavior problems like depression or substance abuse and to understand why some may develop issues while others don’t, she said.

--Editors: Angela Zimm, Bruce Rule

To contact the reporter on this story: Nicole Ostrow in New York at nostrow1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net


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