Early Life Stress Affects Brain Development, Changes Children’s Brains

Boy hangs his head in despairIt’s no secret that stressors such as child abuse, poverty, and bullying are bad for children. Adults struggling with mental health challenges frequently point to childhood struggles as a source of their difficulties, and therapists aim to help their clients uncover how the past affects the present. A new study provides evidence that childhood stress changes the way children’s brains develop, leaving permanent marks on the brain.

Early Stress and Brain Development

Researchers looked at 128 preteen and early adolescent children who had experienced poverty, neglect, or physical abuse in early childhood. They interviewed the children and their guardians, cataloging behavioral challenges and evaluating the children’s history of stress. Then they used brain imaging to evaluate each child’s amygdala and hippocampus—two regions of the brain thought to play roles in memory, emotion, and decision-making.

The researchers then estimated the volumes of each child’s amygdala and hippocampus. They compared the brain regions to brain images from a control group of children who had not experienced abuse, neglect, or poverty. They found that children exposed to poverty, neglect, or abuse had smaller amygdalas than the control group. Children who had been physically abused also had smaller hippocampi. Children who had a history of behavioral problems or who had experienced additional stressors saw an even greater reduction in the size of these brain regions.

The Challenges of Early Childhood Stress

This research shows that the challenges children face after a lifetime of abuse or poverty are real and physical. The study’s authors emphasize the importance of reducing poverty and child abuse.

Previous research has shown that early stress exposes children to a host of subsequent risk factors. For example, a recent University of Michigan study found that students with lower family incomes had lower standardized test scores. Another study found that the stress of living in poverty affects school readiness.

References:

  1. Poverty and Education. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://sitemaker.umich.edu/salas.356/more_money__better_grades
  2. Poverty-Related Stress Affects School Readiness, New Study Finds. (2011, October 26). Retrieved from http://www.nyu.edu/about/news-publications/news/2011/10/26/poverty-related-stress-affects-school-readiness-new-study-finds.html
  3. Tyrell, Kelly April. Early life stress can leave lasting impacts on the brain. (2014, June 27).Retrieved from http://www.news.wisc.edu/22955

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  • Cynthia W.

    Cynthia W.

    July 7th, 2014 at 7:31 AM

    As a child/adolescent therapist I am excited about all the research coming out concerning the impact of trauma on the developing brain. Dr. Bruce Perry and his work has been an excellent resource for me along with information coming out from the ACE Study.

  • Chase

    Chase

    July 8th, 2014 at 4:31 PM

    This is very interesting because I always think about this on an emotional level, like of course it will cause changes. But I never think that this can actually PHYSICALLY change a person. Great study

  • Charlene C.

    Charlene C.

    July 31st, 2014 at 2:00 PM

    Hi. I was abused as a child, 1 st black eye at 9, beatings through out my life, siblings including for beatings. Raised on a dairy farm in Maine then moved to San Luis Obispo, ca at 14. Beatings escalated to banging head on cement floor,, a couple more black eyes I guess, being knocked out in bathtub fully clothed saw colored stars. Got in A fist fight with my father at 16 went thru a window. I’m 68 now. NO I don’t get beat anymore. I was 18 the last time I got beat, my year old daughter said don’t and stop. That was the last time. I divorced his crazy ass. And told my next husband you ever touch me and I’ll kill you. End of being beat. But abuse is more than a physical I’ve learned through the years that recognizing energies and frequencies and vibrations you can heal your inner child.

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