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Child maltreatment may leave negative impacts on brain — Study

By  Gabriel Olawale

Do you have children living with you? How well do you treat them? Beware! Scientists say children who experienced early life stress such as maltreatment or poverty may have long time negative impact on them.

For children, stress can go a long way. A little bit provides a platform for learning, adapting and coping. But a lot of it — chronic, toxic stress like poverty, neglect and physical abuse — can have lasting negative impacts.

A team of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers recently showed these kinds of stressors, experienced in early life, might be changing the parts of developing children’s brains responsible for learning, memory and the processing of stress and emotion. These changes may be tied to negative impacts on behavior, health, employment and even the choice of romantic partners later in life.

Different forms of early life stress, such as child maltreatment or poverty, impacted the size of two important brain regions: the hippocampus and amygdala    Children who experienced such stress had small amygdalae and hippocampai, which was related to behavioural problems in these same individuals. The study was published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.  Early life stress has been tied before to depression, anxiety, heart disease, cancer, and a lack of educational and employment success.

For the study, the team recruited 128 children around age 12 who had experienced either physical abuse, neglect early in life or came from low socioeconomic status households.

Researchers conducted extensive interviews with the children and their caregivers, documenting behavioral problems and their cumulative life stress. They also took images of the children’s brains, focusing on the hippocampus and amygdala, which are involved in emotion and stress processing. They were compared to similar children from middle-class households who had not been maltreated.

They discovered that children from low socioeconomic status households and children who had been physically abused also had smaller hippocampal volumes. Behavioural problems and increased cumulative life stress were also linked to smaller hippocampus and amygdala volumes.


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