Child Abuse May Alter Structure of the Brain, Research Shows – Businessweek

By Nicole Ostrow

Dec. 5 (Bloomberg) – Teenagers who were abused as young children show changes in their brains that put them at risk for behavioral problems in adulthood, according to research from Yale University.

Brain scans of adolescents who suffered physical abuse and neglect showed differences in the part that controls executive function – mental processes such as planning, organizing and focusing on details – according to a study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. Changes were also seen in brain areas that regulate emotions and impulses, the study said.

About 3.7 million U.S. children are assessed for child abuse or neglect each year, but the number may be higher as many cases don’t come to the attention of professionals, the authors said. The research, which evaluated teenagers who hadn’t been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, suggests abuse or neglect victims be monitored to reduce the risk of disorders like depression and addiction, researchers said.

“What these findings show is that experiences that people have early in life can really subsequently and fundamentally alter the way their brain develops,” said Philip Fisher, who wrote an accompanying editorial in the journal. “These kids, in spite of the fact that they didn’t have actual disorders, have the potential to be very vulnerable for problems over the course of their development.”

Human brains continue to develop through early adulthood, particularly the area that regulates emotions and executive function, said Fisher, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Oregon and a senior scientist at the Oregon Social Learning Center in Eugene, in a Dec. 2 telephone interview.

Gender Differences

The study included 42 kids ages 12 to 17 who didn’t have a psychiatric diagnosis. The researchers used questionnaires to determine if the children suffered from physical abuse, physical neglect, emotional abuse, emotional neglect and sexual abuse. They then took images of their brains using MRI.

Scans showed that girls were more likely to have differences in brain areas related to emotional processing, making them more vulnerable to mood disorders like depression, while boys had changes to areas for impulse control, which could make them more vulnerable to drug and alcohol addictions, said study author Hilary Blumberg, an associate professor of psychiatry and diagnostic radiology in the Child Study Center at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.

Neglected Children

Brain alterations occurred in both adolescents who suffered abuse as well as neglect, the research found. The study didn’t show distinct patterns in the brains of children who were sexually abused, although Blumberg said that may be because the number of children who were sexually abused was small.

“It was very important to see the findings with regard to neglect,” Blumberg said in a Dec. 2 interview. “That was an area that had been little studied.”

Researchers are continuing to follow these teens to see if they develop behavior problems like depression or substance abuse and to understand why some may develop issues while others don’t, she said.

–Editors: Angela Zimm, Bruce Rule

To contact the reporter on this story: Nicole Ostrow in New York at nostrow1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net

Ron Huxley’s Reaction: The information in this blog post is not new to anyone working with abused and neglected children. What is interesting is that it is posted on a very well respected business site. This tells me that the mainstream is beginning to get a clue about a very serious problem that might result in funding to help. To be really effective, we have to attack this issue “before” it gets to a crisis level and cost us more in the form of juvenile justice and mental health programs. Let’s work with the families to prevent the abuse and neglect from happening in the first place!

The Moral Life of Babies and Some Thoughts on Parenting

Ron Huxley’s Rant: I came across this very comprehensive article on the moral life of babies. I didn’t repost the entire article here because, well, it’s quite long and could get a bit boring. If you like that sort of thing I would encourage you to click the nytimes.com link above. Here’s the basic premise: Babies do come into the world with a bit of a moral compass. It is our job as parents to give it some refinement. This premise moved me to consider how are parenting philosophy and techniques are based on how we think about babies. 

The researchers conducted several experiments demonstrating that children experience empathy and have sense of right and wrong from the earliest moments of their lives. Their solutions to moral problems (how two children will share one toy that both believed they had their eye on first) may be limited due to their cognitive limitations and lack of social guidance but their innate understanding that some injustice has occurred is right on. Astute parents have witnessed their children getting their feelings hurt by the most innocent of situations. I once looked at a baby wrong and she tightened her face up into a silent scream and then exploded into tears. This reaction doesn’t come without some moral frame of reference, however limited.

I am not sure why we like to believe children are “perfect idiots” or full of “blooming, buzzing (moral) confusion” as a couple of leading thinkers in the field have described them. My fear is that when we hold the idea that children are narcissistic sociopaths, we will respond to them in very adverse, punitive ways. I think this has definitely been the case historically. The parenting idea of “spare the rod and spoil the child” has lead too many parents to the point of physical and emotional abuse. In my career many parents that had their children removed really that they were doing the right thing by their child. So much of our beliefs about parenting is governed by social constructs. How would parenting styles differ if we thought of babies as already equipped with a moral center, full of goodness and mercy? I know this sounds a bit preachy, but really, how would we parent differently? Would it change how we prioritize our schedules during the day? Alter educational standards? Give a new approach to discipline?

Let’s have a conversation, with other parents, about how parenting methods might change if our first thought is that babies are smart, nice and loving creatures and not budding sociopaths in need of parental toughness. Share your thoughts here or post on Facebook and Twitter.