Neurological Connectivity Impaired in Emotional Abuse Survivors

Many children who have experienced adversity and maltreatment often enter adulthood with effective emotional processing and coping abilities. However, some children who have survived abuse continue to have difficulty in several areas of functioning. Exhaustive research has been conducted on the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse and physical abuse, showing that the impact of such events can cause significant adjustment issues and result in a number of psychological problems.

But another form of abuse, childhood emotional maltreatment (CEM), has received less attention. The ramifications of this type of abuse can be significant, as children are often emotionally abused by the caregivers they rely on for their basic needs of food, shelter, and security. Therefore, to understand how CEM affects emotional well-being in adulthood, Steven J.A. van der Werff of the Department of Psychiatry at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands recently led a study that compared the resting state functional connectivity (RSFC) in the brains of 44 adult survivors of CEM to that of 44 adults with no history of CEM.

The results revealed notable differences between the two groups. “CEM was associated with decreased RSFC between the right amygdala and the bilateral precuneus and a cluster extending from the left insula to the hippocampus and putamen,” said van der Werff. These areas are directly related to emotional processing and mood regulation.

Research shows that impairments and deficits in these areas are also present in people with depression and other affect issues. Another interesting finding was that neurological differences also existed in areas responsible for goal-directed behavior and emotional suppression, suggesting that survivors of CEM may have difficulty suppressing negative emotional reactions and focusing on positive goal-related behaviors.

Overall, these findings show that functional connectivity may be impaired in adult survivors of CEM. This provides support for the theory that CEM can have long-lasting negative effects equal to those of childhood sexual or physical abuse and that adults who have experienced CEM may benefit from therapies designed to reduce these negative effects.

Van der Werff, ,S.J.A., et al. (2013). Resting-state functional connectivity in adults with childhood emotional maltreatment. Psychological Medicine 43.9 (2013): 1825-36. ProQuest. Web.

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  • Gretchen


    September 7th, 2013 at 4:35 AM

    So anyone who thinks that the scars and bruises of abuse are only carried on the outside, read this.
    I think that this quite xlearly shows that many of the injuries are things that we never could begin to see

  • Alexis


    September 9th, 2013 at 3:43 AM

    I look back on how normal I was a s a kid and how damaged I have now become after survived an abusive relationship with a man I should have left years before I actually did. He never hit me, I will give him that, but he said so many mean and hurtful things to me… let’s just say that I will never feel the same way about myself again. He took away any sense of pride that I had in myself, any dignity, and instead all of that has now been replaced with shame. I ashamed for letting him do that to me, tear me down in front of my kids and never speaking up for myself all out of fear that he would leave, never realizing that this was a poor substitute for love in my life.

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