November 9, 2013
The Leftovers Of Maltreatment
As I was driving home from work one day, I was listening to National Public Radio where I heard this radio segment about child maltreatment, brain scarring, and psychological problems. As I listened, I found myself compelled to write about it. The report explained one study that found that maltreatment in childhood may lead to changes in the brain. The study was conducted by a team from the University of Wisconsin. They published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
This study asked 64 adolescents who were 18-year-old to answer a questionnaire that assessed childhood trauma. As the NPR report explains,
“The participants were asked how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements like, “When I was growing up I didn’t have enough to eat,” or “my parents were too drunk or high to take care of the family,” or “somebody in my family hit me so hard that it left me with bruises or marks.”
There were also statements about emotional and sexual abuse. The responses indicated that some had been maltreated in childhood while others hadn’t.
All of the participants had their brains scanned using a special type of MRI to measure the strength of connections among three areas of the brain involved in processing fear.”
And these brain scans showed that the connection to the hippocampus—what helps decide if something is truly dangerous—was relatively weak. The findings suggested that the adolescents who had been maltreated had fear circuitry that was not working the way it usually does. In fact, this helped to explain children and other young patients who suffer with anxiety and depression. As Ryan Herringa, one of the study’s authors, said, “These kids seem to be afraid everywhere,” he says. “It’s like they’ve lost the ability to put a contextual limit on when they’re going to be afraid and when they’re not.”
Boys and girls equally had brain scarring and issues like this if they had been maltreated, but girls also had weak connections to the amygdala, which triggers the flight or fight responses because it is the emotion and fear center of the brain. The fact that girls had more than one weak connection might explain why they are more sensitive, but more research needs to be done in this area to confirm that.
These findings could lead to better prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of certain mental issues—like anxiety and depression—especially when these are related to maltreatment. Since many do not even realize that they have a maltreatment disorder, these findings could lead to an objective test to help diagnose maltreatment.
We have long known how important it is to provide the basic physiological needs of food, shelter, air, water, sex, and sleep, but this shows that we need much more than these. We need to have all of our needs met: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Moreover, this is further proof that maltreatment harms far more than just physically. It damages more than just the bruise. It changes the connections in our brains.
No one should be maltreated, which is more than just abuse. Neglect also takes its toll on us, and that toll has long-term effects.
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