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How Childhood Trauma Affects The Brain

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How Psychological Trauma Effect On The Brain

Childhood Trauma and the Brain | UK Trauma Council

People that experience trauma not only suffers from mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, they may even have significant effects of trauma on the brain. Victims of trauma, particularly those who develop PTSD may have their brain rewired in a sense due to their exposure to trauma. Childhood trauma can even impact the developing brain and cause variations in the volume and function of the brain.

Researchers are continuing to determine exactly how PTSD impacts and even the effect of trauma on the brain that doesnt result in PTSD. Understanding how trauma affects the brain may help create new treatment methods to help reduce and minimize some of the painful emotional symptoms associated with trauma. PTSD symptoms can be frightening and debilitating so gaining insight into how the brain functions differently may be useful in recovery.

Tools like neuroimaging are used to create maps of the brain in order to study PTSD sufferers. These maps show areas of the brain that vary from normal non-trauma brain structure. Traumatic stress leads to significant changes in brain structure and function that cause the victim to continue experiencing stress.

Effects On Behavior Emotions And Social Function

Because childhood abuse, neglect, and trauma change brain structure and chemical function, maltreatment can also affect the way children behave, regulate emotions, and function socially. These potential effects include:

  • Being constantly on alert and unable to relax, no matter the situation
  • Feeling fearful most or all of the time
  • Finding social situations more challenging
  • Learning deficits
  • Not hitting developmental milestones in a timely fashion
  • A tendency to develop a mental health condition
  • A weakened ability to process positive feedback

These effects can continue to cause issues in adulthood if they’re not addressed. Adults who experienced maltreatment during childhood may have trouble with interpersonal relationshipsâor they may avoid them altogether.

This outcome could be related to attachment theory, or the idea that our early relationships with caregivers influence the way we relate to people later on in life. Emotional abuse and neglect don’t allow for a secure attachment to form between a child and caregiver, which causes distress for the child and influences the way they see themselves and others.

Adults who went through childhood emotional abuse or neglect may also experience:

How childhood abuse or neglect affects children later in life depends on a variety of factors:

Box : Current Assumptions Influencing Trauma

Many practice and policy documents highlight the potential for “trauma-informed” interventions to effect change in cognitive functioning and other areas of development. There has been some criticism of this paradigm as a basis for the treatment of all children in care.3 The criticism is centred around three arguments:

  • that the way in which brain development in the context of early adversity and trauma is represented may be oversimplifying the science
  • that claims regarding the plasticity of the brain and what it might mean for therapeutic intervention are not justified by the available science and
  • that the therapeutic interventions that are based on these assumptions , although popular, have not yet been subject to the systematic evaluation that other trauma-specific therapies have .

Dominant ideas

Complex developmental trauma: Complex trauma refers to the impact of children’s exposure to traumatic events on their development and long-term outcomes, in the context of interpersonal relationships with caregivers . It is thought that in this context, the neurological development of the brain becomes distorted such that the “survival” mechanisms of the brain and body are more dominant than the “learning” mechanisms , resulting in wide-ranging impairments in arousal, cognitive, emotional and social functioning.

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Structural And Functional Brain Abnormalities Associated With Exposure To Different Childhood Trauma Subtypes: A Systematic Review Of Neuroimaging Findings

  • 1Collaborative Antwerp Psychiatric Research Institute, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium
  • 2University Department of Psychiatry, Campus Antwerp University Hospital, Antwerp, Belgium
  • 3University Department of Psychiatry, Campus Psychiatric Hospital Duffel, Antwerp, Belgium
  • 4Orygen, The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, Parkville, VIC, Australia
  • 5Centre for Youth Mental Health, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, VIC, Australia
  • 6Department of Psychiatry, VU University Medical Center, Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • 7Amsterdam Neuroscience, VU University Medical Center, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Background: Childhood trauma subtypes sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional maltreatment, and neglect may have differential effects on the brain that persist into adulthood. A systematic review of neuroimaging findings supporting these differential effects is as yet lacking.

Objectives: The present systematic review aims to summarize the findings of controlled neuroimaging trials regarding long-term differential effects of trauma subtypes on the human brain.

What Can We Do

How childhood trauma impacts our families, our work, our ...

Awareness and prevention are key for helping children and adults who have experienced childhood trauma become more resilient and counteract the risk factors and health conditions that can show up later in life.

Adopting a trauma-informed care mindset is a starting point for getting schools, government systems, healthcare facilities, and organizations to change how they communicate with people who may have a history of childhood trauma.

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A Crash Course On Trauma

How do you cultivate and maintain a trauma-sensitive classroom? Often times, we may mistake our students negative actions as personal or intentional. In reality, they may be responding to their current or past trauma.

In this episode of Truth for Teachers Podcast, Angela Watson offers a simple guide to shaping a trauma-informed classroom. This includes simple preventative and interventive measures as well as the importance of setting boundaries.

iTunes | Spotify | Listen online

Difficulty In Executive Functioning

Difficulty with cognitive flexibility means that children may struggle with adapting behaviour to suit different settings, to transition from task to task, and to plan, initiate or complete school work.

Children with this kind of difficulty can benefit from highly structured environments where expectations are clear. They can benefit from prompts to stay on task and the use of pre-arranged strategies to let them know when a transition is pending. These can include advanced warnings, using timers, and visual cues .

Difficulty with behavioural regulation and impulse control may be supported by learning and rehearsing “Stop-Think-Do” strategies and by the use of prompts to remind the child to monitor their behaviour and to act as a “stop gap” between impulse and action. Visual cues and reminders of the steps between impulse and action can also be helpful.

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Vi Important Tools For Practice

Understanding the biological effects of maltreatment provides important tools one can useful in practice. Besides self-report instruments to study changes in moods, emotions, and behaviors during psychotherapeutic and/or pharmacological treatments, sleep can be objectively measured using bio-markers such as actographs, which are non-invasive digital monitoring devices that can be worn on the wrist and measure daily activity, sleep awakenings, and sleep efficiency. Other bio-markers that can be used to monitor and tailor treatment and help prevent the negative biological effects of trauma are monitoring measures of heart rate, body mass index, and post-trauma and follow-up salivary cortisol and amylase concentrations as these measures predict PTSD , and decreasing these levels during treatment may predict remission.

What Is Childhood Trauma

Wired for Danger: The Effects of Childhood Trauma on the Brain

There are many different experiences that can constitute trauma. Childhood trauma is an event experienced by a child that threatens their life or bodily integrity. Physical or sexual abuse, for example, can be clearly traumatic for children. One-time events like a car accident, natural disaster , or medical trauma can take a psychological toll on children as well.

Ongoing stress, such as living in a dangerous neighborhood or being the victim of bullying, can be traumatic, even if it just feels like daily life to an adult.

Childhood trauma also doesnt have to occur directly to the child. For instance, watching a loved one suffer can be extremely traumatic as well. Exposure to violent media can also traumatize children.

Just because an experience is upsetting, however, doesnt make it traumatic. Parental divorce, for example, will likely affect a child but it isnt necessarily traumatizing.

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The Effect Of Childhood Trauma On Brain Development

An early, unexpected, trauma, maternal deprivation, increases the death of both neurons and glia cells in cerebral and cerebellar cortexes in infant rats . Increased exposure to cumulative life stress was associated with poorer spatial working memory performance and decreased volumes of white and gray matter in the prefrontal cortex of non-maltreated youth . Pediatric imaging studies demonstrated that both cerebral and cerebellar volumes are smaller in abused and neglected youth compared to non-maltreated youth . In one research study, maltreated subjects with PTSD had 7.0 % smaller intracranial and 8.0% smaller cerebral volumes than non-maltreated children . The total midsagital area of corpus callosum, the major interconnection between the two hemispheres that facilitates intercortical communication, was smaller in maltreated children . Smaller cerebral volumes were significantly associated with earlier onset of PTSD trauma and negatively associated with duration of abuse . PTSD symptoms of intrusive thoughts, avoidance, hyperarousal and dissociation correlated negatively with intracranial volume and total corpus callosum measures . another study showed smaller brain and cerebral volumes and attenuation of frontal lobe asymmetry in children with maltreatment-related PTSD or subthreshold PTSD compared with archival non-maltreated controls .

How Common Is Childhood Trauma

Of these 17,000 people across each ACE category: 29.5% reported parental substance use 27 % physical abuse 24.7 % sexual abuse 24.5 % parental separation or divorce 23.3% mental illness 16.7% emotional neglect 13.7% mother treated violently 13.1 % emotional abuse 9.2% physical neglect and 5.2% had a household member in prison . Almost two-thirds of people in the study reported at least one ACE category. More than one in five reported three or more ACE categories.

In Australia one in four adults approximately 5 million people are estimated to have experienced significant childhood trauma. This trauma occurred in their home, family, neighbourhood, or within institutions .

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Iv Review Of The Pertinent Literature: The Neurobiology Of Biological Stress Systems Limbic

The LHPA axis plays a central role in regulating the body’s response to stress and is the most studied biological stress system in animals and humans. Activation of the LHPA axis triggers the hypothalamus to secrete corticotrophin releasing hormone . This neuropeptide, also called corticotrophin releasing factor , is a key mediator of the stress response . The term CRH is used when describing its function in the neuroendocrine system and the term CRF is commonly used when describing its function as a neurotransmitter. However the term CRH is the older term and authors are not always consistent in using these rules. CRH stimulates the release of adrenocorticotrophic hormone by binding to CRH receptors in the anterior pituitary. ACTH in turn binds to G protein-coupled receptors in the adrenal cortex, especially in the zona fasciculata of the adrenal glands. ACTH also stimulates the secretion of cortisol, a glucocorticoid hormone that plays an important role throughout the central nervous system . Cortisol activates glucocorticoid and mineralocorticoid receptors, which are located and expressed throughout the brain. Glucocorticoid receptors act as transcription factors and regulate gene expression for metabolism and immune function, as well as for cognitive and brain development . Increased levels of cortisol suppress the immune system, gluconeogenesis, and inhibit its own secretion via negative feedback to glucocorticoid receptors in the hippocampus .

Summary Of The Evidence

8 Strategies For Effective Childhood Trauma Recovery ...

As a whole, the research suggests that children in care are likely to experience one or more cognitive difficulties. Much more research is needed to explore:

  • the impact of timing of abuse
  • whether it matters that the trauma is familial or not and
  • and whether cognitive difficulties are due to abuse per se or the PTSD that arises as a result of traumatic experiences.

In the research reviewed here, PTSD is commonly linked with cognitive functioning, suggesting that it may be especially important to address cognitive vulnerabilities in children showing signs of PTSD.

In general, the evidence base linking abuse and cognitive impairment is not as strong as it is for other factors, including the impairment arising from foetal alcohol syndrome . Taking into consideration the range of factors that are known to affect cognitive development, the broader literature on cognitive functioning in children in care suggests several areas that can be affected by childhood adversity.

Taken as a whole, the literature suggests that children in care are likely to experience:

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Evidence For The Effects Of Trauma On The Brain

Studies that address the relationship between trauma and cognitive development generally take the form of either neuroimaging studies or neuropsychological studies. Neuroimaging studies focus on the growth of important brain structures, and on how efficiently the brain responds to emotional stimuli . Studies in the field of neuropsychology use performance on well-established tasks to infer brain functioning, for example by measuring memory and attention span during defined tasks and make inferences about functioning and behaviour from these results .

Collectively, this research suggests that the brain development of children in care is likely to be affected in some way by their early experiences. The neuropsychological impact of adversity can vary widely, however, and not all children that experience adversity go on to develop difficulties related to learning, memory and attention. The impact of adversity on brain development may depend on whether children primarily have experienced deprivation or threat during their pre-care life: resulting in either delayed cognitive development or dis-integration of cognitive skills, respectively .

This field of research is not well developed and is conceptually and methodologically underdeveloped. For instance, antenatal alcohol exposure frequently affects later cognitive functioning , but studies of children in care rarely report on history of antenatal alcohol exposure.

Ways Childhood Trauma Impacts Young Adult Thriving

What happens to us in our first 10 years or so of life will affect every single decade that follows. During this incredibly rapid period of growth and development, our bodies, brains, and personalities are imprinted by our early experiences. Thats why childhood trauma can have such a significant impact on our mental and physical health and well-being throughout our entire lives.

What constitutes childhood trauma varies widely. Physical or sexual abuse, neglect, and witnessing violence in the home are all common forms of childhood trauma. In addition, children can experience relational traumaa disruption in the primary bond with parent or caregiver. Events outside the home can also catalyze trauma, ranging from extreme bullying to the collective trauma created by disastrous events like a pandemic.

How does the childhood trauma effect impact an individuals ability to thrive as they grow older? Here are four ways that trauma can manifest psychologically and physiologically as children mature into adolescence, young adulthood, and beyond.

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Trauma Exposure Is Associated With Differences In Brain Structure

After controlling for age, sex, race/ethnicity, scanner model, and average cortical thickness as well as correcting for multiple comparisons, focal results were found in several regions for cortical thickness. Specifically, greater trauma exposure was associated with thinner cortices in bilateral superior frontal gyri and right caudal middle frontal gyrus . Greater trauma exposure was also associated with thicker cortices in the left isthmus cingulate and left posterior cingulate . No other cortical thickness regions were significantly associated with trauma exposure.

Fig. 3: Regions with significant associations between regional cortical thickness and latent trauma.

Structural equation modeling that controlled for age, sex, race/ethnicity, scanner model, and average cortical thickness revealed that greater latent trauma scores were associated with thinner cortices in bilateral superior frontal gyri and right caudal middle frontal gyrus and thicker cortices in left isthmus cingulate and posterior cingulate . Multiple comparisons were accounted for using the false discovery rate .

What Happened To You By Terrible Thanks For Asking

How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime | Nadine Burke Harris

Terrible, Thanks for Asking is about as real as it gets. Throughout this three-part series*, Nora McInerny urges us to ask what happened to you instead of whats wrong with you? Listen to Brits 3-part story of building resilience to her childhood trauma.

*Please note these episodes contain mature language and instances of verbal abuse.

Part 3 Episode 87: iTunes | Spotify | Listen online

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Changes In Social Information Processing

Children’s automatic reaction to social stimuli is likely to be biased towards fear or hostility. Caregivers can support children in re-appraising social situations by teaching and modelling the appropriate reactions to social situations, conveying trust in other adults, and modelling appropriate social interaction skills.

Children can sometimes display poor social discrimination, leading to poor choices regarding social interactions. Appropriate social boundaries can be reinforced using visual teaching aids such as circle diagrams that can be used to distinguish family from non-family, and friends from strangers.

There is also some evidence that computerised programs that target social anxiety may be helpful in addressing eye contact aversion in children and adults.

Offer All Children In Care Targeted And Trauma

Children in care are likely to have experienced a complex mix of neglect, trauma and adversity. There is an urgent need to develop tailored interventions for the difficulties faced by these children. In the meantime, all children in care should be offered interventions based on the best current evidence, and that target trauma symptoms and cognitive skills.

Targeted strategies include:

  • Trauma-Focused CBT
  • Dialectical Behaviour Therapy and
  • interventions that focus on the development of specific cognitive skills .

At present, Trauma-Focused CBT is the approach that has most empirical support . This trauma-specific intervention has also been shown to improve broad aspects of executive functioning such as cognitive skills and emotional regulation . Therefore, until more tailored interventions are developed for the complex needs of children in care, trauma-specific therapy should be offered as part of the support plan for children who have been exposed to traumatic events. Ideally, this input will occur in the context of a trauma- aware organisational framework .

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