Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Child abuse changes your brain

If you were abused, you almost certainly already believed this.

If you read the March, 2002 Scientific American article (preview here), you were more convinced.

Now, though, the extremely respectable journal Current Biology has published an article, "Heightened neural reactivity to threat in child victims of family violence," that makes the point quite clearly with some excellent work from a group of top UK scientists. (Thanks to my pal, John Lambshead, for pointing me to this story.)

For an easy to read summary of it, check out this Wired piece, "How Abuse Changes a Child’s Brain." The article opens with this line:

The brains of children raised in violent families resemble the brains of soldiers exposed to combat, psychologists say.
Hell, many of my readers and Dave's already knew that. I sure did. Still, the scientific confirmation is good to have.

This bit summarizes the research:
His team compared fMRIs from abused children to those of 23 non-abused but demographically similar children from a control group. In the abused children, angry faces provoked distinct activation patterns in their anterior insula and right amygdala, parts of the brain involved in processing threat and pain. Similar patterns have been measured in soldiers who’ve seen combat.
The brain changes, of course, are not the only physiological adaptations to abuse (and PTSD of other sorts). As the Scientific American article and its sources made clear, key glands also change, one consequence of which is a heightened adrenaline response.

I do not mention all this to make excuses, because I don't believe any of it provides an excuse for anything I or any other abused person does. We are each responsible for our actions.

No, I'm bringing it out because I want people to understand that the cost of child abuse is high and lifelong, physical and mental, and most importantly, unacceptable.


leftystrat said...

Good stuff, Mark.
My wife is a survivor.

Brain changes shouldn't be a surprise. The rest of us might see PTSD or hypervigilance... it has to come from somewhere.

Michelle said...

Unfortunately, that article is spot on. One beating can wipe out one thousand smiles. Not that abused kids get many smiles. Such a sad commentary to the damage done.

Mark said...

Thanks for the kind words.

Eric said...

Interesting, but, as you said, we already believed this.

By any standard in use in modern America, I think near 100% of the kids where I grew up count as abused. Might explain some of the more charming aspects of Southern culture.

John Lambshead said...

MRI scanners are changing our view of the world. It is a commonplace conclusion of psychiatric study that the child is father to the man.Now we can actually see the mechanisms.

Incidentally, abuse can not only be physical. Having a psychopath as a parent gives damaging results.

Mark said...

I completely agree on both points.


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