NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Childhood abuse and neglect may do more than just affect the way a person looks at life, new research suggests. Abuse may result in permanent physical changes to the developing brain--changes that could cause psychological problems in adulthood.
``The science shows that childhood maltreatment may produce changes in both brain function and structure,'' said lead investigator Dr. Martin H. Teicher, of the McLean Hospital, Belmont, Massachusetts. ``These changes are permanent,'' he added. ''This is not something people can just get over.''
Teicher's team identified four abnormalities in the brain that were much more prevalent in adults who had been abused and neglected as children than they were in adults who were not abused.
The investigators found that adults who had been abused as children were more likely to experience epileptic seizures caused by changes to the limbic system, a part of the brain that controls emotions.
``Emotions that accompany these seizures include sadness, embarrassment, anger, explosive laughter (usually without feeling happy), serenity, and quite often, fear,'' Teicher explains.
The researchers also found that abused children were twice as likely as non-abused children to have an abnormal electroencephalogram (EEG)--a reading that measures electrical activity of the brain. Also, abnormal EEGs were associated with increased self-destructive behavior and aggression.
Another change noted was deficient development of the left side of the brain in adults abused as children, which, the researchers speculate, may lead to depression and problems with memory.
Abused children did not integrate the function of the left and right sides of their brain as well as those who had not been abused, the report indicates. The researchers suggest that this may be caused by a decrease in the size of the bridge between the two hemispheres of the brain.
Interestingly, Teicher and colleagues found a difference between boys and girls in the response to type of abuse. Neglect was the more likely factor to reduce the size of the bridge in boys. But sexual abuse had no effect. In girls, sexual abuse was associated with a decrease in the size, but neglect had no effect.
``The trauma of abuse induces a cascade of effects, including changes in hormones and neurotransmitters (chemicals released by brain cells) that mediate development of vulnerable brain regions,'' Teicher writes in the Fall 2000 issue of Cerebrum.
``We know that an animal exposed to stress and neglect early in life develops a brain that is wired to experience fear, anxiety and stress,'' Teicher said. ``We think the same is true of people.''
SOURCE: Cerebrum 2000;50-67.
See .Punished for Life--Canadian study links spanking to addiction and psychiatric disorders, Reuters, re: Study, Canadian Medical Association Journal, October 5, 1999
See Hidden Scars--Childhood abuse, whether physical or sexual, leads to psychological disturbances in up to 40 percent of survivors. It may also cause changes in brain structure, by Madhusree Mukerjee (1995).