An interesting but small study by researchers at the Yale School of Medicine and recently published in the Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine has found that adolescents who experienced abuse or neglect as children, had less grey matter in the part of the brain that deals with emotions and impulses, although they had not been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder.
MRI scans showed reductions in prefrontal cortex
The study involved 42 adolescents who completed questionnaires designed to measure their perceived experience of emotional or physical neglect or abuse. Using MRI scans, the researchers found that there were reductions in the prefrontal cortex in all cases where the youngsters reported that they had been maltreated.
“Though these kids do not have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder, they are still showing physical signs of maltreatment,” said Hilary Blumberg, associate professor of psychiatry in the Child Study Center and the senior author of the study.
“The results could explain possible difficulties in school or future depression or behavioral issues.”
The children in this study will continue to be tracked to see if they do develop psychiatric disorders in the future.
Cerebellum and Insula
In the meantime, the researcher’s claim that other areas of the brain affected was linked to whether the child was male or female and whether they claimed they suffered physical or emotional abuse or neglect.
For example, neglect showed up in reductions in the Cerebellum, the part of the brain regulating pleasure and fear, and physical abuse showed up as a reduction in the Insula, a part of the brain controlling self awareness.
Everett Waters, professor of psychology at the State University of New York said that the results only show a correlation, they don’t prove that abuse or neglect in childhood leads to changes in the brain.
In girls the reduction was more concentrated in areas dealing with emotion and in boys the grey matter was reduced in areas to do with impulses. As depression is associated with an inability to regulate emotions, this findings highlights the fact that depression is higher in women than in men according to Jennifer Pfeifer, Assistant professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon.
Both Pfeifer and Waters maintain that longer studies are required that will track children from infancy in order to understand the development of structural brain changes.
Some more resilient than others
Some adolescents, said Blumberg, seemed more resilient to the effects of maltreatment than others despite some physical symptoms. Pfeifer and her colleague Philip Fisher also from University of Oregon suggested two possible reasons for this.
One is that the changes in the amount of grey matter makes the adolescents more vulnerable to psychological problems and these just haven’t happened yet, and the other is that the adolescents who are resilient have found other ways of adapting to their circumstances.
“It is also possible that brain problems led to the kids being abused,” Waters said, “or more likely, that some third factor led to both the brain problems and the abuse.”
The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.
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