Brain changes from childhood abuse linked to adult mental illness

A new study suggests that children who are emotionally mistreated or sexually abused show changes in brain structure that could account for the development of adult mental illness.

And while studies have shown that victims of childhood abuse often have psychiatric problems as adults, how these issues develop biologically has been somewhat of a mystery.

MRIs show thinning of cortex

An international team of researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study the brains of 51 adult women who had experienced various types of childhood abuse.

A correlation was found between women who had been abused and a reduced thickness of the cerebral cortex - specfically in areas of the brain that are responsible for processing abuse.

Women who had been sexually abused as children, for example, showed thinning in areas of the somatosensory cortex that represent the female genitals. Similarly, women who had been emotionally mistreated as children showed thinning in areas of the brain associated with self-awareness and emotional regulation.

Long-term effects

Scientists say the findings support the idea that abuse in early life can have far-reaching consequences on the mind-body system.

“The finding that specific types of early life trauma have discrete, long-lasting effects on the brain that underlie symptoms in adults is an important step in developing novel therapies to intervene to reduce the often lifelong psychiatric/psychological burden of such trauma," Charles B. Nemeroff, study author, said in a statement.

Researchers speculate that the thinning of the brain may represent a type of protective mechanism in response to the abuse by shielding the child from the sensory experience of the trauma. In adulthood, however, the brain changes could lead to behavioral and psychiatric problems.

Source: University of Miami

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