Child Abuse Can Impair Brain Wiring

Adults who were abused as children have abnormalities in their brains. Specifically an impaired structure and functioning of cells in the anterior cingulate cortex. This is a part of the brain which plays an important role in the regulation of emotions and mood. The researchers believe that these changes may contribute to the emergence of depressive disorders and suicidal behaviour.

One of the abnormalities is less myelination of axons. Myelination occurs in childhood and allows the nerve impulse to be conducted over axons between neurons. This decreased myelination may alter functional coupling between the cingulate cortex and subcortical structures such as the amygdala and nucleus accumbens (areas of the brain linked respectively to emotional regulation and to reward and satisfaction) and contribute to altered emotional processing in people who have been abused during childhood.

What can be done about this? Is there a way to compensate for the fact that axons in abused people have less myelin?

I don’t know, but I hope so.

http://neurosciencenews.com/neural-connection-child-abuse-7572/

Summary: McGill researchers report those who suffer from traumatic experiences during childhood, like severe abuse, show significant abnormalities in the structure and cell function in the anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain associated with emotion and mood regulation. Researchers believe these changes may contribute to depressive disorders and suicidal ideations, often considered a long term effect of trauma suffered during early life.

Source: McGill University.

For the first time, researchers have been able to see changes in the neural structures in specific areas of the brains of people who suffered severe abuse as children.

Difficulties associated with severe childhood abuse include increased risks of psychiatric disorders such as depression, as well as high levels of impulsivity, aggressivity, anxiety, more frequent substance abuse, and suicide. Severe, non-random physical and/or sexual child abuse affects between 5-15 % of all children under the age of 15 in the Western world.

Researchers from the McGill Group for Suicide Studies, based at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and McGill University’s Department of Psychiatry, published research in the American Journal of Psychiatry that suggests that the long-lasting effects of traumatic childhood experiences, like severe abuse, may be due to an impaired structure and functioning of cells in the anterior cingulate cortex. This is a part of the brain which plays an important role in the regulation of emotions and mood. The researchers believe that these changes may contribute to the emergence of depressive disorders and suicidal behaviour.

Crucial insulation for nerve fibres builds up during first two decades of life

For the optimal function and organization of the brain, electrical signals used by neurons may need to travel over long distances to communicate with cells in other regions. The longer axons of this kind are generally covered by a fatty coating called myelin. Myelin sheaths protect the axons and help them to conduct electrical signals more efficiently. Myelin builds up progressively (in a process known as myelination) mainly during childhood, and then continue to mature until early adulthood.

Earlier studies had shown significant abnormalities in the white matter in the brains of people who had experienced child abuse. (White matter is mostly made up of billions of myelinated nerve fibres stacked together.) But, because these observations were made by looking at the brains of living people using MRI, it was impossible to gain a clear picture of the white matter cells and molecules that were affected.

To gain a clearer picture of the microscopic changes which occur in the brains of adults who have experienced child abuse, and thanks to the availability of brain samples from the Douglas-Bell Canada Brain Bank (where, as well as the brain matter itself there is a lot of information about the lives of their donors) the researchers were able to compare post-mortem brain samples from three different groups of adults: people who had committed suicide who suffered from depression and had a history of severe childhood abuse (27 individuals); people with depression who had committed suicide but who had no history of being abused as children (25 individuals); and brain tissue from a third group of people who had neither psychiatric illnesses nor a history of child abuse (26 people).

Severe, non-random physical and/or sexual child abuse affects between 5-15 % of all children under the age of 15 in the Western world. NeuroscienceNews.com image is adapted from the McGill news release.

Impaired neural connectivity may affect the regulation of emotions

The researchers discovered that the thickness of the myelin coating of a significant proportion of the nerve fibres was reduced ONLY in the brains of those who had suffered from child abuse. They also found underlying molecular alterations that selectively affect the cells that are responsible for myelin generation and maintenance. Finally, they found increases in the diameters of some of the largest axons among only this group and they speculate that together, these changes may alter functional coupling between the cingulate cortex and subcortical structures such as the amygdala and nucleus accumbens (areas of the brain linked respectively to emotional regulation and to reward and satisfaction) and contribute to altered emotional processing in people who have been abused during childhood.

The researchers conclude that adversity in early life may lastingly disrupt a range of neural functions in the anterior cingulate cortex. And while they don’t yet know where in the brain and when during development, and how, at a molecular level these effects are sufficient to have an impact on the regulation of emotions and attachment, they are now planning to explore this in further research.

19 thoughts on “Child Abuse Can Impair Brain Wiring

  1. I was abused as a child physically and sexually. I was very suicidal and cut my wrists mostly because no one believed listened or cared but I have found ways to cope as I got older. I started to share my story on my blog. I feel I still shut down in regards to speaking up with my emotions

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am so sorry you went through such awful things, I too was horrendously physically abused as a child 😔 I am so glad you are finding ways to cope, I have too and now it isn’t really an issue in my life! Best wishes to you! 🤗🤗

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you so much
        I actually sent the first few paragraph of this to my mother as she is a barrister in a family court she turned around with her usual abuse at me. I have decided I’m done with my relationship with her as it only drags on my feelings and will never give me the closure I need.

        Liked by 1 person

      • So, so sorry! It was my mother as well who abused me. I hope you can come to terms with her and do whatever is the best for yourself! After a long time, I actually forgave my mother for the awful abuse she inflicted on me starting when I was 4 years old. After I forgave her, the healing began. It was scary not to have my anger protecting me at first, but now I am at peace. I wish peace and serenity for you too. 🤗🤗🤗

        Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t speak urdu but I know jee means yes lol. I live in north Africa and ajnabiya is what I get called which is there way of calling me a foreigner. Sometimes it’s derogatory sometimes it’s just used as the term. But I’m English origin

        Liked by 1 person

      • I have heard they uncovered a huge paedophilia group within the supreme court. My mother wasn’t the least bit suprised. I guess I’m more sensative to that kind of information. She calls the scums yet she covered up my uncle and protected him from the law.

        Liked by 1 person

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