Early Life Stress? Impact Depends on How You Process It

Early life stress and trauma factors (ELTs) are common in the development of psychological problems later in life. Physical abuse, sexual abuse, loss, grief, and abandonment are all events that can create significant impairment for individuals. Among the many processes that influence the development of psychological issues are specific impairments to neurological mechanisms. Research has shown that certain areas of the brain are similarly impaired in individuals with similar psychological conditions.

However, it is unclear how ELTs affect individuals without clinical symptoms. To gather some insight into how ELTs impact neurological regions responsible for emotional processing and development, Mayuresh S. Korgaonkar of the Brain Dynamics Centre at the University of Sydney Medical School in Australia recently led a study examining the brain regions of 352 participants with no history of psychiatric treatment or symptoms. Using data gathered from MRIs, Korgaonkar looked at cortical thickness, white matter, and gray matter.

The results revealed that there were distinct decreases in cortical thickness for participants with a history of ELT, despite the fact that these participants did not report symptoms. Korgaonkar believes that perhaps, especially in the case of older participants, the ELTs were underreported. Many adults learn to adapt and cope well with ELTs and therefore, do not experience outward symptoms of depression or posttraumatis stress (PTSD). Even though their neurological impairment may be similar, other individuals with a history of ELTs do not possess the same coping skills and use maladaptive strategies, resulting in psychological symptoms.

Interestingly, ELT had the most significant impact on cortical thickness only among a certain segment of participants. “These effects were most prominent during adolescence—a neurodevelopment period that is peak for risk and onset of depressive disorders,” added Korgaonkar. However, these effects did not result in any psychological symptoms of any significance.

This could suggest that cortical thickness repairs naturally over time and that these individuals may eventually have increases in these regions, especially if they adopt healthy coping mechanisms. Overall, these results provide valuable insight into the neurological constructs that are impacted by ELTs. More work should be done to determine why these impairments lead to clinical issues in some and not in others.

Korgaonkar, M.S., Antees, C., Williams, L.M., Gatt, J.M., Bryant, R.A., et al. (2013). Early Exposure to Traumatic Stressors Impairs Emotional Brain Circuitry.” PLoS ONE 8(9): e75524. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075524

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  • janine


    November 8th, 2013 at 11:23 AM

    So how early are we talking here? Are we saying in uetro or at an age where we would be old enough to remember, like maybe 3 or 4?

  • Lillian


    November 9th, 2013 at 5:09 AM

    I always think about these kinds of issues from purely a mental health and emotional point of view, never really thinking how this kind of stress and trauma could actually affect someone on a physical level like actually changing brain structure. You have to consider them when the physical damage or changes are those that we can see on the outside but probably most of us have never considered how things could change internally, things that we would never see but that have so much influence over our behavior and our personality.

  • judith


    November 11th, 2013 at 4:45 AM

    How interesting that the adolescents were most affected? I would suppose that a lot of this is because this is such a pivotal time for growth and development in children this age, so when things happen it is like they are doubled in impact because of the timing and the age of the child. We always knew that things could affect this age group more strongly from an emotional level, but now we see that there are also physical ramifications as well that could have a later impact on their health.

  • Barbara


    November 12th, 2013 at 4:48 AM

    At least this shows that all is not lost, that even if bad things happen to you when you are younger, if you have the ability to develop strong coping mechanisms then all is not lost, you can learn to overcome that.

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