The Neurobiology of Child Abuse
Maltreatment at an early age can have enduring negative effects on a child's brain development and function. STRESS sculpts the brain to exhibit various ANTISOCIAL, though adaptive, behaviors

By Martin H. Teicher, Scientific American, March 2002, pg. 68-75

EXCERPT (pg. 75):

Adaptive Detriment
Our team initiated this research with the hypothesis that early stress was a toxic agent that interfered with the normal, smothly orchestrated progression of brain development, leading to enduring psychiatric problems. Frank W. Putnam of Children's Hospital Medical Center of Cincinnati and Bruce. D. Perry of the Alberta Mental Health Board in Canada have now articulated the same hypothesis. I have come to question and reevaluate our starting premise, however. Human brains evolved to be molded by experience, and early difficulties were routine during our ancestral development. Is it plausible that the developing brain never evolved to cope with exposure to maltreatment and so is damaged in a nonadaptive manner? This seems most unlikely. The logical alternative is that exposure to early stress generates molecular and neurobiological effects that alter neural development in an adaptive way that prepares the adult brain to survive and reproduce in a dangerous world.

What traits or capacities might be beneficial for survival in the harsh conditions of earlier times? Some of the more obvious are the potential to mobilize an intense fight-or-flight response, to react aggressively to challenge without undue hesitation, to be at heightened alert for danger and to produce robust stress responses that facilitate recovery from injury. In this sense, we can reframe the brain changes we observed as adaptations to an adverse environment.

Although this adaptive state helps to take the affected individual safely through the reproductive years (and is even likely to enhance sexual promiscuity), which are critical for evolutionary success, it comes at a high price. McEwen has recently theorized that overactivation of stress response systems, a reaction that may be necessary for short-term survival, increases the risk for obesity, type II diabetes and hypertension; leads to a host of psychiatric problems, including a heightened risk of suicide; and accelerates the aging and degeneration of brain structures, including the hippocampus.

We hypothesize that adequate nurturing and absence of intense early stress permits our brains to develop in a manner that is less aggressive and more emotionally stable, social, empathic and hemispherically integrated. We believe that this process enhances the ability of social animals to build more complex interpersonal structures and enables humans to better realize their creative potential.

Society reaps what it sows in the way it nurtures its children. Stress sculpts the brain to exhibit various antisocial, though adaptive, behaviors. Whether it comes in the form of physical, emotional or sexual trauma or through exposure to warfare, famine or pestilence, stress can set off a ripple of hormonal changes that permanently wire a child's brain to cope with a malevolent world. Through this chain of events, violence and abuse pass from generation to generation as well as from one society to the next. Our stark conclusion is that we see the need to do much more to ensure that child abuse does not happen in the first place, because once these key brain alterations occur, there may be no going back. [Emphasis added]

See Childhood Abuse Changes the Developing Brain, By Emma Patten-Hitt, Yahoo! News, December 29, 2000

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