Thoughts from a broken mind
New research appears to show that the stress of child abuse shrinks an important area of the brain called the hippocampus, which has been associated with memory, learning and emotional regulation.
This finding is important because it may explain why abused children often go on to have later psychiatric disorders, such as depression.
Almost 200 young adults in the Boston area who were not taking medications or abusing drugs or alcohol were involved in the study.
The study participants were interviewed about any mistreatment they may have suffered as children, such as physical, emotional or sexual abuse. They were also asked about any neglect, verbal abuse or significant separations or losses that they might have experienced.
The researchers found that about 16% of the group had endured significant levels of abuse, having experienced three or more types of mistreatment. And, this same group had higher than average rates of mental illness. Depression was twice as common in this group and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was about three times as common.
They researchers next used magnetic resonance imaging to examine a region of the brain called the hippocampus. Shrinkage in this area has previously been associated with depression and other mental illness.
What they found was that in those who had suffered abuse as children, three key areas of this region had shrinkage. And, this shrinkage existed regardless of whether the individuals had any signs of mental illness, which would seem to indicate that the shrinkage preceded the mental illness in those who had it.
The good news, however, according to lead author Martin H. Teicher, is that the changes in the hippocampus can be modified. Activities such as vigorous exercise and mental stimulation can undo them.
The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on February 12, 2012.