Child maltreatment has a profound effect on the brain — even in kids who are resilient and don’t suffer from psychiatric disorders, according to two new studies, one of which found that brain activity in children raised in violent homes resembled that seen in soldiers exposed to combat.
For that study, published in Current Biology, researchers used functional MRI to image the brains of 43 London children as they looked at pictures of angry, sad or neutral faces. Twenty of the children, aged 11 to 13, were known to have been exposed to violence at home. They were compared with a matched group of 23 children from healthy families.
When looking at the faces in the scanner, children who had been exposed to violence showed increased activity in the amygdala and anterior insula in response to angry faces — a finding that is similar to that seen in soldiers with combat experience. These brain regions are thought to play a role in perceiving threat, and the heightened activity suggests hypervigilance to potential danger.
In any ongoing violent situation, being primed to perceive cues of threat — like angry faces or sudden, loud noises — can be beneficial, helping people elude harm. But while such brain changes may be adaptive in the short term, they can take a toll over time, increasing stress, anxiety and the risk of disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. Chronically elevated levels of stress hormones can also increase the risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and addictions.
Please consider this before exposing your or any children to high stress situations.
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