Researchers have discovered that victims of maltreatment, neglect, or abuse in childhood experience changes in their brain, leaving them more vulnerable to mental illness.
Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Martin Teicher led a study of almost 200 people, aged 18 to 25. The researchers specifically wanted to address the brain changes in victims of neglect and abuse.
Child abuse frequently results in conditions like PTSD and depression, this led the researches to include people who had been diagnosed with mental health issues. The study did not include addicts or those on psychiatric medications, as drugs can cause brain changes that would affect the results of the study.
Of the participants, a quarter had been severely depressed at some point, and 7% were PTSD diagnosed. Of the 16% of participants who had been subjected to three types of child maltreatment or more, were in a more difficult position. Of those 16%, 53% of them had dealt with severe depression and 40% had partial or full PTSD.
The trauma’s aftermath was visible in their brain scans, whether they had diagnosable disorders or not. Regardless of the status of their mental health, victims of childhood abuse had a 6% decrease in the volume of their hippocampus, and a further 4% in the subiculum area.
Previous data suggested high levels of cortisol could have an impact on the hippocampus, and this study starts to tie up all of the loose ends of prior research. Stress early in life makes the brain less robust in dealing with the effects of stress later in life.
Brain scans of adults with PTSD and depression frequently show there has been a reduction in hippocampus size. The findings may provide us with a path from maltreatment to addiction, PTSD, and depression.
All of these conditions are affected by the subiculum. It communicates with the hippocampus, and helps determine our biochemical and behavioral responses to stress. In a highly stressful situation the subiculum will send the signal for us to flee the situation. Unfortunately, it also regulations the system that produces toxic levels of brain cell killing neurotransmitters when faced with chronic high stress situations, such as childhood abuse. So, high cortisol levels may result in cell death in the part of the brain that prevents production of cortisol, resulting in a counterproductive cycle.
What Does It Mean?
Chronic maltreatment sets the stress system to high alert. While this may be useful for soldiers in combat, or even in children avoiding abusers- for the long term, it increases the risk of mental illness. Stress system dysregulation results in intense feelings of anxiety, as well as fear or even a lack of pleasure. This can prompt sufferers from escaping their feelings by delving into alcohol or drug use.