Childhood Trauma: New Research on Brain Impact and Anxiety/Depression

Tears for Fears - The Hurting

Is it an horrific dream? (source: Tears for Fears–click for link)

This latest report from NPR underscores how trauma and stress at an early age “wires” the brain into a fight or flight response with real physical symptoms and consequences.  “Maltreatment during childhood can lead to long-term changes in brain circuits that process fear, researchers say. This could help explain why children who suffer abuse are much more likely than others to develop problems like anxiety and depression later on.”

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, particularly: childhood trauma is a well-known cause of anxiety and depression later in life. But the fact that this can leave people unable to distinguish between real and perceived threats is a critical finding. The wiring built into the brain resulting from trauma leads the brain into a fearful mode. This research from the University of Wisconsin proves that actual changes in the brain lead to this dysfunction–a scary place where real and perceived threats hold sway over individuals who can’t resolve them.

As the report states:

“Maltreatment during childhood can lead to long-term changes in brain circuits that process fear, researchers say. This could help explain why children who suffer abuse are much more likely than others to develop problems like anxiety and depression later on.

Brain scans of teenagers revealed weaker connections between the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus in both boys and girls who had been maltreated as children, a team from the University of Wisconsin reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Girls who had been maltreated also had relatively weak connections between the prefrontal cortex the amygdala.

Those weaker connections ‘actually mediated or led to the development of anxiety and depressive symptoms by late adolescence,’ says Ryan Herringa, a psychiatrist at the University of Wisconsin and one of the study’s authors.'”

Herringa says messages from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex are often balanced by input from a third area, the hippocampus, which helps decide whether something is truly dangerous. “So, for example, if you’re at home watching a scary movie at night, the hippocampus can tell the prefrontal cortex that you’re at home, this is just a movie, that’s no reason to go into a full fight or flight response or freak out,” Herringa says.

At least that’s what usually happens when there’s a strong connection between the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, and the fear circuitry is working correctly.

But Herringa says brain scans showed that in adolescents who had been maltreated as children, the connection with the hippocampus was relatively weak. He says in girls who had been maltreated, the connection with the amygdala was weak, too.

This is a technical way of saying that the natural “governor” in the brain that tells you to relax, it’s not a real threat, is dysfunctional. The results are not pretty; often leading to a negative feedback loop syndrome that people with extreme fear and/or anxiety and/or depression experience. Research has shown that those who practice Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction reduces social anxiety disorder, as well as a range of other affective dysfunctions.

Read about the science behind fight or flight here.

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

The Ancient Brain Team

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