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Abuse and changes in adolescents’ and children’s brains

Two studies reported recently on changes in the brains of adolescents and children who have suffered abuse. Despite my prejudice against ‘we’ve found some kind of brain activity, so that explains everything’ research, this does look interesting, and maybe meaningful.
First ‘past abuse leads to loss of gray matter in the brains of adolescents’, reported in both Medical News Today: and PsyPost: (you probably don’t need both links: they say very much the same things, being lifted from the same Yale University press release). The study was on ‘forty-two adolescents without psychiatric diagnoses’. Hilary Blumberg, one of the authors, has published quite a bit on brain changes in people with bipolar disorder (and so is looking for Szasz’ ‘bad brains’: for all the criticism there is of strictly medical models of mental illness, it’s quite possible that some problems do have physical origins or physical accompaniments).

The brain areas impacted by maltreatment may differ between boys and girls, may depend on whether the youths had been exposed to abuse or neglect, and may be linked to whether the neglect was physical or emotional.
[…]The reduction of gray matter was seen in prefrontal areas, no matter whether the adolescent had been physically abused or emotionally neglected. However, in other areas of the brain the reductions depended upon the type of maltreatment the youth had experienced. For example, emotional neglect was associated with decreases in areas that regulate emotions.
The researchers also found gender differences in patterns of gray matter decreases. In boys, the reduction tended to be concentrated in areas of the brain associated with impulse control or substance abuse. In girls, the reduction seemed to be in areas of the brain linked to depression.

The original paper is Erin E. Edmiston; Fei Wang; Carolyn M. Mazure; Joanne Guiney; Rajita Sinha; Linda C. Mayes; Hilary P. Blumberg (2011) Corticostriatal-Limbic Gray Matter Morphology in Adolescents With Self-reported Exposure to Childhood Maltreatment Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med.;165(12):1069-1077.
The abstract is here:

Blumberg points out that adolescents’ brains are still pretty malleable, so these changes may not have long-term significance

Here’s another related finding (

When children have been exposed to family violence, their brains become increasingly “tuned” for processing possible sources of threat, a new study reports. The findings, reported in the December 6th issue of Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, reveal the same pattern of brain activity in these children as seen previously in soldiers exposed to combat.
The study is the first to apply functional brain imaging to explore the impact of physical abuse or domestic violence on the emotional development of children, according to the researchers.
“Enhanced reactivity to a biologically salient threat cue such as anger may represent an adaptive response for these children in the short-term, helping keep them out of danger,” said Eamon McCrory of University College London. “However, it may also constitute an underlying neurobiological risk factor increasing their vulnerability to later mental health problems, and particularly anxiety.

The stimuli used were pictures of angry, neutral and sad women’s faces. The heightened response was shown to angry faces, but not sad faces. The children had been ‘exposed to documented violence in home’ and were matched with controls. In the .pdf version, I can’t see any information about the age of the children, but there were 20 in the experimental sample.
The reference is McCrory, De Brito, Sebastian, Mechelli, Bird,  Kelly and Viding (2011) Heightened neural reactivity to threat in child victims of family violence Current Biology, 21 (23), R947-R948, and the full article is at

Again, this looks as though it might be saying something useful, though the ‘long-term’ claims would maybe depend on plasticity again.

Both news releases on PsyPost have the same old useless ‘brain’ picture on them.


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