Adolescents who were exposed to family violence during childhood show the same pattern of changes in brain activity as soldiers exposed to violent combat situations.
Scientists used functional MRI brain scans to explore the impact of physical abuse or domestic violence on 42 teens, 20 of whom reported a history of abuse or neglect during childhood.
Findings revealed that watching pictures of angry faces increased brain activity of abused kids in anterior insula and the amygdale, the two regions associated with detecting potential threats.
The detected brain activity changes followed the same pattern previously observed in traumatized soldiers who were exposed to violent combat situations, researchers wrote in Current Biology.
Although the studied children had no history of being diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, they showed reductions of gray matter in some areas of the brain such as cortex, striatum, amygdala, and cerebellum.
“Enhanced reactivity to a...threat cue such as anger may represent an adaptive response for these children in the short term, helping keep them out of danger,” said lead researcher Eamon McCrory.
“Understanding the neural mechanisms might give us clues as to how someone's future might be shaped by their experience,” he noted, suggesting that such brain changes may be a neurobiological risk factor increasing the children's susceptibility to later mental illnesses.
Childhood maltreatment is known as one of the most effective environmental risk factors associated with development of later mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, which is a major cause of mortality, disability, and economic burden worldwide.
“We are only now beginning to understand how child abuse influences functioning of the brain's emotional systems,” McCrory said. “Can children change in response to an act of intervention? To a better home environment? We're quite optimistic that's the case, that this is reversible. But that's something we need to test.”