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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