Child Abuse Changes the Brain

Child Abuse Changes the Brain

A follow up report on a study done two decades ago has determined that child abuse qualifies as a public health concern.  The report concluded that abuse and neglect have the ability to change the brain and that these changes have a significant impact in how the child functions both as a child and into adulthood.

The preferred response to this report, according to researchers, would be the “immediate, coordinated” development of a national strategy meant to address abuse, increasing understanding and prevention.

As of today, the United States Department of Health and Human Services has a manual on its website meant to outline abuse response techniques.  Although it is extensive, it was authored in 1994.  This is problematic because, according to the report, the rates of abuse have shifted rather than declined.  While rates of reported physical and sexual abuse have gone down, instances of psychological and emotional abuse have risen.  The reasons for this change in rates is not understood and creates potential issues of efficacy with the policies that are older than the shifting trends.

The repercussions of psychological and emotional abuse are far reaching.  As adults, these children can experience difficulties with mental illness, impulse control, and attachments to others resulting increased instances of substance abuse, legal difficulties, domestic abuse, increased health costs, and lost wages.

The findings of impairment by the researchers led its chairperson, Anne Petersen, to conclude, “Child abuse and neglect is a serious public health problem which requires immediate, urgent attention.”

The effect of child abuse on the brain has been shown to involve changes in how the limbic system — the emotional center — of the brain functions.  Studies have shown an increased rate of abnormalities in this region of the brain based upon the types of abuse a person is exposed to.  When different types of abuses are combined, this rate of change to soar to as high as 113 percent.

Changes to this region of the brain are typically associated with the development of posttraumatic stress disorder as the limbic system also plays an important role in survival instincts, such as flight, fight or freeze.  Maladaptive reactions to stimuli can be conditioned into the limbic system, causing stress reactions that are inappropriate to the immediate environment once the person is removed from the source of abuse.

Trauma affects other areas of the brain as well.  Stress reduces the ability for the cortex to function properly, diminishing a child’s capacity for problem solving and rationalization when under high amounts of stress.  Suppressed cortical activity can also aid in the reactiveness of the limbic system as it affects the child’s ability to process the events happening around them.

Luckily, the brain has a built in feature known as neural plasticity, which means that with treatment the negative changes in a child’s brain can be redirected into more adaptive patterns of activity.  With the removal of the abusive environment and the introduction of therapy and support, a child’s brain can begin to make positive adjustments that would permit the child to develop more normally.  Interventions in the vein would help lessen the impact of childhood trauma on adult life.

The report indicates that there are still many factors to child abuse that are not understood, such as why some aspects of the economic downturn have affected rates while other factors have not.  This lack of understanding leaves intervention efforts incomplete.  That is why the researchers involved stressed the importance of immediate and extensive research be conducted following this report.  Considering that the manual on the DHHS website is older than a lot of the science surrounding the changes in the brain, a comprehensive update on child abuse intervention policies seems of the utmost importance.

Written by: Vanessa Blanchard

Department of Health and Human Services News Source

Washington Post News Source

Adults Surviving Child Abuse News Source