The Neurobiology of Childhood Abuse and Trauma

"Our brains are sculpted by our early experiences. Maltreatment is a chisel that shapes a brain to contend with strife, but at the cost of deep, enduring wounds." - Dana Foundation

Neurobiology is the study of the nervous system and how the brain functions in terms of its related structures. This article will highlight present research with regard to the effects that childhood abuse and trauma have on brain functioning and development.

Evidence has shown that adverse early life experiences have a great effect on the developing brain. Children spend the majority of their time during the first several years of their life with family or other caregivers where repeated exposure to violence, abuse, or neglect can cause chronic stress, which can alter neurobiological development. These neurobiological changes can occur and may lead to possible lifelong psychiatric disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. The risk of developing psychiatric disorders is partly because of these neurobiological changes that happen over development, which influence one’s ability to regulate emotions and adapt to future stressful events.

Exposure to childhood trauma can lead to changes in the structure and function of multiple areas in the brain including the hippocampus, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), and the amygdala. The hippocampus plays a large role in learning and memory. It helps an individual to record new memories and retrieve them later in response to specific and relevant environmental stimuli. For those that have experienced trauma, studies have shown that these individuals have a smaller hippocampus further affecting their ability to discriminate between past and present experiences or correctly interpret environmental contexts. This may be why, for example, a certain place or smell can trigger extreme stress responses in individuals as the place or smell may remotely resemble something from their traumatic past.

The PFC is an important site that plays a role in regulating our attention, awareness, and emotions. For those that have experienced abuse, their PFC is reduced in volume resulting in a less active PFC. Due to the PFC being less active, it loses a lot of its functional ability. So individuals exhibit a more extreme stress response to stimuli that may or may not be directly connected to their experiences from the past. This means that survival responses are triggered in the absence of danger or a threat making one less able to learn and think as they are stuck in survival mode.

The amygdala helps us to detect and deal with threats in the environment by activating what is called our fight or flight response. This response to stress helps to prepare the body to react to danger. Those that have experienced abuse have a hyperactive amygdala, meaning that it works too hard. This can make a person more likely to react to triggers, especially emotional ones that again may or may not be connected to their trauma experience. As a result, people can experience emotional extremes and struggle to regulate their emotions.

Although childhood trauma can greatly affect the development of brain function, in the midst of trauma, many children are able to develop neurobiological resilience when presented with protective social and biological factors. These factors include supportive and responsive parents, peers, or other adult caregivers that can buffer the effects of childhood trauma on neurobiological development. Additionally, to reduce the effects of childhood trauma, children can gain great benefits from engaging in psychotherapy and/or using pharmacological interventions even into adulthood.

Check out this awesome video for more information on how childhood abuse and trauma affects the developing brain.

Written By: Dayna