At the Developmental Traumatology Laboratory at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinics in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, researchers are conducting studies in traumatized children using the most up-to-date methods to study their stress circuits and brain development. In a recent report, they described their findings on maltreated children with PTSD who they compared to healthy, normal children and to children with clinical anxiety disorders who had not been maltreated. Many of the maltreated children had been sexually abused beginning between the ages of 18 months and 7 years. They had also witnessed domestic violence beginning early in life, and some had been battered by family members. For most of the children with PTSD, the trauma was chronic, lasting for several years before the children were rescued.
Unlike non-maltreated comparison children, the children with PTSD had elevated levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, even on a normal day when nothing especially stressful was happening (DeBellis, Baum, et al., 1999). Thus, these children’s stress systems seemed to be turned on even when they didn’t need to be. Especially high stress hormone levels were found among the children who had been abused for longer and/or had more severe PTSD. Very similar results have been found for children rescued from Romanian orphanages, even though for the most part these children had been severely neglected rather than physically or sexually abused.
The Impact of Neglect and Trauma on the Developing Brain
The Pittsburgh group also scanned the brains of maltreated children with PTSD. Even after they accounted for many things that could produce mistaken results, they found striking evidence of smaller brain volumes, with larger effects the earlier the abuse began and the longer it lasted before the children were rescued (De Bellis, Keshaven, et al., 1999). Similar results have been found at the CIVITAS Child Trauma Programs at Baylor College of Medicine. Did the abuse cause the brains of these children to be smaller? We can’t be certain. Would the brains of abused children who did not develop chronic PTSD also show some reduction in size? We don’t know. But these data and other studies currently underway certainly encourage concern about the impact that maltreatment may have
on the child’s developing nervous system.
Helping Families Support Healthy Brain Development
It is now clear that what a child experiences in the first years of life profoundly influences how his brain will develop and how he will interact with the world throughout his life. Parents play the most important role in providing the nurturing and stimulation that children require, but they need information and support to develop good parenting skills. In the past, extended family members were often close by, offering good advice and acting as role models for inexperienced parents. Young families today often live far away from grandparents and other family and rely more on community resources for information and support in parenting. There is much that communities can do to help families promote their children’s healthy brain development.
Source – Starting Smart = The Ounce of Prevention Fund