Witnessing Domestic Violence Decreases Gray Matter Volume

Children who are exposed to domestic violence are at much greater risk of developing psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress (PTSD) when compared to children who have never witnessed domestic violence. Being a witness to abuse, verbal aggression, or physical violence can increase a child’s chances of exhibiting behavior problems such as defiance, aggression, and bullying. Although these associations have been clearly established, less is known about the neurological effects of exposure to violence. Numerous studies have been conducted on the brains of children and adults to see how childhood sexual abuse, neglect, and other forms of maltreatment affect survivors.

To extend the existing literature to include the neurological impact of exposure to violence, Akemi Tomoda of the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts recently led a study that analyzed the gray matter volume (GMV) in a sample of 22 young adults who had witnessed domestic violence (WDV). The participants reported on frequency of verbal aggression and physical violence that occurred in their homes. Their brain scans were then compared to those of 30 young adults who had no history of WDV or psychiatric issues.

The results revealed that the WDV participants had over 6% less GMV than the control participants. Cortical thickness was also measured and was found to be significantly lower in the WDV group. This finding is similar to findings on survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Another interesting finding was that of dissociation. Some WDV participants had high rates of depression and anxiety, while more resilient WDV participants had virtually no psychological symptoms. However, the resilient individuals did have dissociative experiences that were similar to the susceptible WDV individuals and dissociative scores that were much higher than any found in the control participants.

“Hence,” added Tomoda, “Although resilient subjects in the WDV group did not experience the most common psychiatric consequences of exposure (depression and anxiety), they did experience heightened levels of dissociation.” Additionally, Tomoda found that WDV between the ages of 11 and 13 had the largest impact on GMV and neurological variances. Therefore, Tomoda believes that this developmental period presents a vulnerable stage during which efforts should be made to reduce exposure and victimization for children at risk of domestic violence.

Tomoda, A., Polcari, A., Anderson, C.M., Teicher, M.H. (2012). Reduced visual cortex gray matter volume and thickness in young adults who witnessed domestic violence during childhood. PLoS ONE 7(12): e52528. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0052528

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  • Robby

    May 10th, 2013 at 6:08 PM

    Most children are so impressionable, that it is difficult to think of them being harmed either physically or mentally.
    They aren’t old enough to take up fo themselves and they are left to the merchy of the adults who are supposed to be caring for them.
    It makes me so angry to think about the bad things that so many children have to witness in their lives and the numerous ways that this negatively follows them all throughout their lifetimes.

  • dolly

    May 10th, 2013 at 11:22 PM

    violence can shake up the best of us.for children it could be a disaster psychologically.not only would they suffer as a result but become prone to picking up such behavior themselves.I hope this new neurological proof opens the eyes of parents of children at risk.

  • Colleen

    May 11th, 2013 at 5:10 AM

    This is such a tricky area to get involved in. Of course I don’t want to see any child have to be a part of this destructive cycle within any family. But I often think that it is the other family members who need to get involved and get the children out of the situation, and not someone from the outside. I think that if I didn’t really know the family and they don’t know me, then they are going to be highly agitated if I step in and try to intervene. I would never want any kind of harm to come to a child, but I also think that there are services and agencies which will be far better trained and knowledgeable about the ebst ways to handle cases like this.

  • Chris

    May 12th, 2013 at 12:20 AM

    Colleen:You r so right! So many times people will frown even when u offer them healthy advice. And this can get a bit too personal. So it makes sense for this to be targeted to parents so they understand the effects themselves and thereby not put their children in such circumstances where in the children have to suffer mentally.

  • Lillian

    May 13th, 2013 at 3:59 AM

    The take away from all of this is that regardless of who you are it is never a good thing for a child to witness such violence against another.
    Even if this is not directed primarily toward the kid, it is quite obvious that this is still going to cause many problems for them.
    The bad news is that those of us who are actually reading this and taking something away from it are the ones who already know that this is a dangerous cycle for them to be caught in.
    The ones who are creating the violence? I can probably say that they are not the ones reading on this site and searching for answers for how to stop acting out this rage on others.

  • O.V

    May 14th, 2013 at 12:17 AM



    May 15th, 2013 at 10:58 AM

    Children are little tape recorders. They emulate what they see. Often times violence will be portrayed in their play or in their drawings. at cdv.org we are an organization that focuses on the children of domestic violence ina way that educates them to a better way to deal with lifes problems than violence. by educating the children we are helping to stop the cycle of violence.

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