Early-Life Stress Can Have Long-Lasting Impact on Brain Circuitry and Behavior

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B.J. Casey, Ph.D., expert on anxiety research and children and adolescence mental health
B.J. Casey, Ph.D.

Early-life stress of “disorganized parental care” or being raised in an orphanage can alter the functioning of the amygdala (the area of the brain that processes fear and other emotional experience), creating issues with emotion regulation and anxious behavior well past the childhood experience. This is the powerful conclusion of a research team led by Foundation Scientific Council member B.J. Casey, Ph.D., and three-time NARSAD Grantee Francis S. Lee, M.D., Ph.D., both of Weill Cornell Medical College.

Publishing the results of a new study October 21st in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team describes experiments in mice exposed to stress explicitly designed to mimic the stress experienced by children who are raised parentless, in orphanages. “We found evidence of both early and persistent alterations in amygdala circuitry and function following early-life stress,” the team writes.

The findings, they continue, “are similar to our human findings in children adopted from orphanages abroad.” Even following removal from the orphanage, the ability of such children to suppress attention to potentially threatening information―as opposed to focusing on positive, goal-directed behavior―was observed to be diminished compared with children who were never institutionalized.

The Weill Cornell team, which also included Deqiang Jing, M.D., Ph.D., a 2012 NARSAD Young Investigator Grantee, noted that the impact of adoption on orphans has not been measured with sufficient rigor to determine adoption’s impact on brain and behavior impacts of pre-adoption stress. Their own findings, however, “underscore the importance of early-life experiences on later development,” the scientists said, and they highlight the need for early intervention in children who are deemed at risk following stressful experiences occurring early in their lives.

Read an abstract of this research.

Article comments

Our son was exposed to persistent bullying in a school he attended in his early primary school years (age 4 and 5 ), at age 6 he expressed an acute anxiety regarding a voice in his head that told him he was a bad person.....he was seen by a clinical psychologist for assessment; the psychologist decided he was perfectly normal, healthy and bright...our son was very social,highly sensitive, verbally expressive, and affectionate. We removed him from that awful school; later we find out that the school principal had record of children that were removed due to bullying, and this same principal later told us she believed " that bullying is part of life and you might as well get use to it", to top this off this same principal felt our child was the cause of being bullied! So you can imagine how our child was stressed and how he convinced himself over the years in his mind that he was a bad person and that is why he was bullied and marginalized by his peers; the change of school helped but did not nothing obviously to rewire his brain regarding how he would cope with stress later in life, his self perception , and his anxietyand need to be approved. In his teens every time he was stressed his negative self perception would re-emerge, eventually he stressed himself to the point of psychosis....paranoia schizophrenia. Today we believe that those early year experiences traumatized him, and we did not understand the full extent of that trauma although we worried about his former expereience and impact. But his self assurance masked his inner pain, and he was so out-going and positve, successful at his endeavors we were fooled. We thought a change of school and love/care at home would remedy the experience he had......obviously it was not enough as his trauma surfaced later in his teens wit increase of acadmeic , peer stress etc.. which we mistook as teen angst. It did not help that our son in his teens refused any form of extensive therapy, but by then he was already in advanced stages of his mental illness. So orphanages may be one cause of early childhood traumatic experiences but even trauma caused by persistent bullying are definitely another cause! It does not have to be rape, physical abuse, as verbal abuse and psychological alienation is enough ...to re-wire the brain. By the way the trauma did nothing to stop his cognitive development, he was bright at school, social, won awards in drama, art and debating but on the onset of his acute mental illness in his teens (breakdown) his cognition became undermined......the rest is history of paranoia-schizophrenia with all the positive and negative symptoms.

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