Childhood Maltreatment Experiences Linked to Reduced Brain Connectivity and Psychiatric Illness

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Ryan J. Herringa, M.D., Ph.D., Depression and anxiety expert
Ryan J. Herringa, M.D., Ph.D.

Ryan J. Herringa, M.D., Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and 2012 NARSAD Young Investigator Grant recipient, conducted a study to investigate brain changes associated with childhood maltreatment experiences that can lead to the development of later psychiatric illness, particularly depression and anxiety. The brain is most delicate and impressionable during childhood; it continues to physically develop not only in the first years of life but extending even beyond adolescence and into young adulthood. This is well documented, but it is not yet well understood what goes wrong in the brain when a young person is maltreated that can lead to the development of illness.

In this new study, Dr. Herringa worked with two-time (1995 and 2003) NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Grantee Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., and other colleagues and found that connectivity in brain areas crucial in regulating fear and emotional memory is reduced in adolescents reporting childhood maltreatment experiences. The findings were reported November 4th in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research team studied a group of 64 “late adolescents” (aged 18) who had been followed from birth in the Wisconsin Studies of Families and Work (Principal Investigator: Marilyn Essex, Ph.D.). Abuse measures and adolescent anxiety and depression symptoms were self-reported by the participants and functional brain images were taken (structural and resting state) to allow for modeling of brain connectivity. The researchers identified lower levels of connectivity between a portion of the lower prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus region of the brain in both males and females and, in females only, lower connectivity between the lower prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. These weaker brain connections, in turn, mediated the development of adolescent symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The findings are exciting in two respects. First, they suggest a clear and consistent biological liability linked directly with depression and anxiety in maltreated children. Second, they seem to indicate at least one possible cause for a fact long known: females are more likely than males to become depressed or anxious over the lifespan. Some of this difference may be due to hormonal activity; but as this study suggests, the additional impact of maltreatment on connectivity to the amygdala region in the brain in females may also help explain the difference.

Read the abstract of this research paper.

Article comments

As a child who was subject to illness, because I was being watched for "signs", I thought of myself as ill, and therefore may have been made to believe I was really sick--when in actuality, had it been taken in stride, had I been a part of a family who incorporated me and all of me rather than kicking me out for being non-perfect--would the outcome had been different? Would hormonal production have been different? Research is saying that it all would have been different...so couldn't it be that instead of looking to tests, and pills, that we should be looking to including the sick one rather than blaming or "treating" them differently?

Fascinating. Suggests some degree of decoupling between experience and the attached emotions and memory. A feature of such maltreatment, whether physical or psychological, is that it is inconsistent: the same circumstances or the same behavior on the part of the victim do not always lead to maltreatment. Sometimes maltreatment occurs for no reason apparent to the victim; sometimes a reason seems evident, but is also outside the control or influence of the victim. Perhaps healthy development of these connections is impeded by formative years of this life. Perhaps it is even a form of adaptation, learning not to have positive expectations in an uncertain environment where the correlation between maltreatment and other life factors is weak.

I've often wondered if the psychological abuse I think I suffered as a child didn't have something to do with my dysthymia (depression) later. I know my mom was worried about my mental health and I was aware of something being not right as a youth. But eventually it's just a footnote in my own history/recovery; many problems as years went by were the result of my own mistakes. I have to take responsibility for where I am now, even though I can understand that my mental illness has played a huge role in my choices over the years. Thankfully God is slowly showing me the right path (through such things as medication and counseling). But it seems so painfully slow.

How do you define "maltreatment?"

What TOOK so long to figure this out...it's actually stupid that psychiatrists haven't pieced together what is sooo obvious...i said this for years...all the people i know with it experienced some kind of abuse- but emotional abuse abuse is often neglected as a factor...or negligence or character disorder parents...child's neurochemistry gets habituated over time and very hard to change later in life..
obviously it's trauma to the brain at an impressionable age....why SUBOXONE the miracle cure for depression is still not being given to these patients is beyond me and it's despicable that Heroin addicts are allowed to use it legally but those that really need it can't ! i have to order online illegaly my SUBOXONE for the past 5 years and i never went up on dosage..family supports this decision as well as it was the only medicine that worked after 15 SSRI's failed ( i still have to combine with cymbalta)but without Suboxone i would be dead..it truly saved my life after too many years of batteling for my life. please legalize SUBOXONE for Depression and save people's lives..

Judith, I think you have a point. You noted that "degree of decoupling between experience and the attached emotions and memory" - it's dissociation, a survival tactic we all use, whether daydreaming in class or creating personalities and splinters to cope with emotional and phsycial overload.

And regarding positive thinking and imagining the future (using Law of Attraction), you're spot on. I remember as a child - and later as an adolescent - living with my abusive borderline mom, a bipolar who also had two distinct personalities unaware of each other. (My narcissist dad was mainly absent.) When I'd hear people encourage dreaming about the future, my inner response was bitter: "There's no point in imagining things that aren't going to happen. All that leads to is pain. It's better to have no expectations, 'cause you can't get disappointed." I was saturated with "learned helplessness" (as in Seligman's research).

As obvious as this studies findings seem, I am happy that a doctor/researcher has produced quantitative results that can be shared with the whole medical community. It is a little ridiculous that even Sigmund Freud knew this and studied this subject, and in the present day it seems like new information. Yet, the concept that a neglectful, abusive, or a "maltreating" childhood can produce certain chemical changes in a young person's brain is study I can get behind. Show me the science, the chemical proof, the DNA, and compare that to behaviors and patterns and doctors and other in this field will take notice. I hope that books and therapies will evolve from all the growth that has been occurring in this field in general. People's lives become damaged and often useless, and everyone in societies all across this Earth suffer as a consequence...economically, sociologically, stigmatically, etc. There are so many of us who suffer from serious psychological issues and the powers that be cannot ignore this any longer. These studies, as silly as they seem, will get attention, and I hope will knock some sense into health care and governmental policies and all the scams therein: we are people, we are citizens, no one can take that away from us, and I hope that more knowledge will have us treated more humanely and if morality doesn't get the medical, insurance, and governmental elite's attention maybe the economic toll on our country's business and budgetary bottom line will do it. For these reasons, I support this foundation, and I pray for wisdom and ingenuity for our researchers, physicians and psychiatrists to find effective ways to help us and hopefully find ways of prevention of mental disorders. In general, I am talking about mending broken hearts from the pain and suffering of these diseases, and mending malfunctioning brains and their chemistry so we can take the necessary steps to feel human again and walk out of the darkness and into the light.

Anything we can take in our 50s to make us feel better from the trauma?

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