Abuse Can Alter a Child's Brain and Behavior: Study
Fri, December 9, 2022

Abuse Can Alter a Child's Brain and Behavior: Study

Previous studies discovered that a history of maltreatment is linked with a wide range of psychiatric disorders and stress-related medical conditions. / Photo by: Katarzyna Białasiewicz via 123rf


Children are expected to spend their childhood learning new things and exploring the world around them, not worrying about anything but only discovering pure joy. Unfortunately, not every child gets to have this kind of experience. Some are subjected to hate, violence, or abuse. Reports showed that about five children die every day due to child abuse. Approximately one out of three girls and one out of five boys are more likely to get sexually abused before they reach the age of 18.

In the US alone, more than four children die from child abuse and neglect daily. Of this number, 70 percent are children aged three and below. According to Verywell Mind, a trusted and compassionate online resource that provides the guidance people need to improve their mental health and find balance, the most common form of child abuse is neglect. It affects about 75 percent of victims. Another 25 percent of children were victims of various kinds of abuse, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. 

Any child can be a victim of abuse regardless of their gender or background. We have heard of stories of kids being violated and manipulated. We have also seen how childhood abuse can change their lives forever. Much concerning is the fact that a lot of adults still commit this crime. Reports also showed that childhood abuse is more prevalent among kids who belong in low socioeconomic families. They are more than three times likely to get abused and seven times likely to get neglected than children from affluent families.

Previous studies discovered that a history of maltreatment is linked with a wide range of psychiatric disorders and stress-related medical conditions, including heart disease and diabetes among victims. Also, the lifetime consequences of early maltreatment not only affect the victims but their families and friends also. 

Martin Teicher, Ph.D., director of the developmental biopsychiatry research program at McLean Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said, “These individuals are the most challenging to treat. There’s a real pressing need to identify and develop better strategies to help them.”

How Abuse Alters the Brain

Hundreds of studies have been conducted to examine changes in the brain after childhood maltreatment. According to the Dana Foundation, a private philanthropic organization based in New York committed to advancing brain research and to educating the public in a responsible manner about research’s potential, the earliest research used EEG measurements to detect abnormal patterns of electrical activity in the brain. Recently, more and more researchers are using brain imaging to accurately determine the impacts of early-life neglect or abuse on brain structures and function. 

It was reported that the brain’s sensory systems are modified in such a way that makes them less sensitive. For instance, children who have suffered high levels of verbal abuse from their parents have grey matter volume in their left auditory cortex and abnormalities in an important language-processing pathway in the brain. At the same time, those who have been exposed to domestic violence show grey matter changes in the visual cortex and decreased integrity in the primary fiber tract. It affects the visual cortex, which is tasked to determine memory and emotional response to visual stimuli. 

Also, there’s an observed thinning in portions of the somatosensory cortex, which is involved in conveying feelings of touch in the clitoris and surrounding genital area. Regions involved in self-awareness and self-evaluation, the cingulate cortex and bilateral precuneus, have also been affected. “Maltreatment is targeting these specific sensory systems and probably de-tuning them to a certain degree to minimize the traumatic effect of the exposure,” Teicher said.

A study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry showed that connectivity of key brain areas is also affected. According to Medical News Today, one of the fastest-growing health information sites in the US, the largest axons of a child’s brain are unusually thickened. This could negatively affect the connectivity between the anterior cingulate cortex, which is responsible for processing emotions and cognitive functioning, and other areas of the brain. 

How Abuse Affects a Child’s Behavior

Research suggested that childhood abuse leaves deep marks, which can result in post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, substance abuse, and depression. Earlier this year, Nils Opel at the University of Münster, Germany, and his colleagues released a study that explored how childhood abuse can affect a person’s mental health. The researchers scanned the brains of 110 adults hospitalized for major depressive disorder. After that, they asked the participants about the severity of their depression and whether they had experienced neglect or emotional, sexual, or physical abuse during childhood.

According to News Scientist, a weekly English-language magazine that covers all aspects of science and technology, the findings of the study revealed that childhood abuse is linked to changes in brain structure that may make depression more severe in later life. The researchers discovered that those who experienced childhood abuse and have a smaller insular cortex were more likely to have a relapse.


Research suggested that childhood abuse leaves deep marks, which can result in post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, substance abuse, and depression. / Photo by: Katarzyna Białasiewicz via 123rf


“This is pointing to a mechanism—that childhood trauma leads to brain structure alterations and these lead to a recurrence of depression and worse outcomes,” Opel said. 

Verywell Mind stated that early maltreatment can affect the way children behave, regulate emotion, and function socially. Some of the impacts include finding social situations more challenging, having a weakened ability to process positive feedback, having a tendency to develop depression or an anxiety disorder, being constantly on the alert and unable to relax, and feeling fearful most or all of the time.

Children should be given the chance and freedom to enjoy their childhood. It’s never right to subject them to abuse no matter what they have done.