New research suggests that the effect of trauma in infancy and early childhood can be a precursor to mental disorders and heart disease later in life.
Documenting the impact of early trauma on brain circuitry and volume, the activation of genes and working memory, which may result from early physical abuse, maternal treatment and poverty, the researchers suggest it increases the risk of mental disorders, as well as heart disease and stress-related conditions in adulthood.
"While we are becoming fully aware, in general, of the devastating impact that early life adversity has on the developing brain, today's findings reveal specific changes in targeted brain regions and the long-lasting nature of these alterations," said Bruce McEwen, from the Rockefeller University, an expert on stress, according to a statement of the Society for Neuroscience.
"In doing so, this research points not only to new directions for the improved detection and treatment of resulting cognitive impairment, mental health disorders, and chronic diseases, but also emphasizes the importance of preventing early life abuse and neglect in the first place."
These findings show:
*Physical abuse in early childhood may realign communication between key "body-control" brain areas, possibly pre-disposing adults to cardiovascular disease and mental health problems.
*Rodent studies provide insight into brain changes that allow tolerance of pain within mother-pup attachment.
*Childhood poverty is associated with changes in working memory and attention years later in adults; yet training in childhood is associated with improved cognitive functions.
*Chronic stress experienced by infant primates leads to fearful and aggressive behaviours; these are associated with changes in stress hormone production and in the development of the amygdala (almond-shaped mass in the front part of the cerebrum, involved in the processing and expression of emotions, especially anger and fear).
Another recent finding discussed shows that:
*Parent education and income is associated with children's brain size, including structures important for memory and emotion.
The findings were presented at Neuroscience 2012, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.