Childhood trauma and the brain

Pixabay: OpenClipart-Vectors




Excerpt: How does childhood trauma impact on brain development?


Our childhood brains develop from the ‘bottom up’ i.e. the brain stem first. The survival functions develop before those for planning and impulse control. Our brainstem works fully when we are born. It controls basic survival functions such as heart rate, breathing, sleep and hunger.

We are also born with a functioning ‘threat detection’ system. In fact the amygdala can register a fear response in the final month before we’re born (Cozolino, 2006). We can develop a ‘memory’ of fear before we have language (i.e. this is pre-verbal), or can understand where the fear comes from. These ‘memories’ are stored in our body as body memories and emotions.

The hippocampus develops in response to our world into adulthood (Cozolino, 2006). Before the hippocampus develops we can’t consolidate ‘autobiographical’ memories. The pre-frontal cortex only matures in our mid-twenties.

Some parts of the brain grow and develop rapidly at certain ages. Overwhelming stress in childhood affects the way the brain develops (Gunnar and Quevedo, 2007; Pechtel and Pizzagalli, 2011). During critical periods of development, trauma can badly affect different areas. Positive experiences can help development. Negative experiences impair development (Wilson et al., 2011).

What changes occur in the brain in childhood trauma? What are their effects?

Childhood trauma can affect different parts of the brain. This helps explain many of the challenges survivors experience.

• Reduced activity in Broca’s area (this is the area for speech). This can make it difficult to talk about trauma and describe it with detail (Hull, 2002). This is additional to trauma which is pre-verbal.

• The hippocampus becomes smaller and its structure is interrupted (Wilson et al., 2011; McCrory et al, 2010). This can affect attention, learning and memory (Hedges and Woon, 2011; Pechtel and Pizzagalli, 2011).

• The corpus collosum which connects the left and right sides of the brain, is reduced. This prevents the two sides of the brain working in a coordinated way (Wilson et al., 2011)

• Changes to amygdala function (Wilson et al., 2011; Pechtel and Pizzagalli, 2011). This can make a person more likely to react to triggers, especially emotional ones. People can experience emotional extremes and struggle to regulate their emotions.

• Reduced activity in different parts of the cortex- frontal lobes (McCrory et al, 2012). This can mean a survival response/s is triggered in absence of danger (Ali, et al., 2011).

• Changes in ‘reward pathways’. This can mean that survivors anticipate less pleasure from different activities, and may appear less motivated (Pechtel and Pizzagalli,)



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