Study Links Abuse With Less Gray Matter in Adolescent Brains

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Abused or neglected teen girls are more likely to be depressed: Photo By Mickey van der Stap

The number of children who are abused in America is estimated at roughly 3.7 million. Children living in abusive homes may have outward signs of abuse, such as bruises or broken bones. The visual signs are what people visualize when thinking about abused children in America. Yale University has conducted a new study, published today in Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, shows that the outward signs of abuse are not the only physical damages endured by abused children.

Study Illuminates Inner Signs of Abuse

The study, entitled Corticostriatal-Limbic Gray Matter Morphology in Adolescents With Self-reported Exposure to Childhood Maltreatment, was led by Dr. Hilary Blumberg of Yale University’s Child Study Center. In the research, it was shown that children subject to physical and emotional abuse or neglect had reduced gray matter. Gray matter is the tissue in the brain which contains the brain cells. There was a gray matter reduction in the prefrontal regions of the brain for both abuse and neglect. Adolescent boys showed reductions in areas responsible for impulse control and substance abuse, while adolescent girls showed reductions in areas responsible for depression.

Abuse Affects Brains Differently by Gender

When Decoded Science asked Dr. Blumberg about what’s most likely the cause of the regional variations between teen boys and girls, she replied:

“We cannot tell from this research the cause of the different patterns between the genders. Preclinical studies provide evidence that sex hormones such as estrogen influence the sensitivity of brain regions to stress. It is possible that the different patterns in the girls and boys in this study may have been a result of different interactions between hormones and stress on the development of the brain. Further studies of the gender differences may help us learn more about why girls who have been exposed to high stress are more likely to develop depression.”

Recovering From Abuse

There was some silver lining to this study. Dr. Blumberg’s study showed plasticity in the adolescents brains which allowed the areas to rebuild the lost gray matter. Dr. Blumberg told Decoded Science about this restorative feature of the brain.

“We do not know how long it would take, however, we have learned that the brain is plastic, and especially plastic during adolescence, so it is likely that some of the brain changes are not permanent. It is critical to better understand how these changes occur, and to find ways to prevent maltreatment and to help individuals who have been exposed.”

When it comes to the importance of this study, Dr. Blumberg summed up her work,

“The research shows how important it is to prevent child abuse and neglect, both physical and emotional.  For children who have been exposed, it is critically important that we do further research to better understand how stress effects the brain and to find ways to help individuals who have been exposed.”

Physical scars aren't the only signs of trauma for abused children: Photo By National Institute of Health

Grey Matter Reduced By Abuse

Future research, measuring grey matter in adult children of abuse, may shed light on the effect of plasticity in abused children’s brains. In the interim, research, such as this study, is an important step towards understanding the hidden damage caused by abuse and neglect.

References

Erin E. Edmiston, BA; Fei Wang, MD, PhD; Carolyn M. Mazure, PhD; Joanne Guiney, MSc; Rajita Sinha, PhD;Linda C. Mayes, MD; Hilary P. Blumberg, MD. Corticostriatal-Limbic Gray Matter Morphology in Adolescents With Self-reported Exposure to Childhood Maltreatment. Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine 2011;165(12):1069-1077. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics. (2011). 565. Accessed December 5, 2011

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