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Child abuse, neglect can trigger permanent brain damage

December 14, 2000
Web posted at: 3:41 PM EST (2041 GMT)

By Troy Goodman
CNN.com Health Writer

(CNN) — Child abuse and neglect can “rewire” the nascent brain, scientists have
found, which may lead to psychological problems throughout adulthood.

“These changes are permanent,” said Dr. Martin Teicher of Mclean Hospital,
a psychiatric center affiliated with Harvard Medical School in Boston,
Massachusetts. “This is not something people can just get over with and get
on with their lives.”

In a report published in the journal Cerebrum, Teicher analyzed the largest and
most detailed study on how childhood experiences affect brain development. He
used high-tech brain imaging on several hundred children and adults to identify
four types of brain abnormalities — all of which were linked to child abuse and
neglect.

The abuse-related brain damage appears to foster such problems as adult
aggressiveness, depression, anxiety and even memory and attention impairment.
The report confirms smaller studies showing that the brain “rewires” itself in
response to trauma.

“A child’s interactions with the outside environment causes connections to form
between brain cells,” said Teicher, who heads McLean’s Developmental
Biopsychiatry Research Program. “These connections are pruned during puberty
and adulthood. So whatever a child experiences, for good or bad, helps
determine how his brain is wired.”

Previous experiments with monkeys raised without their mothers have already
linked depression, schizophrenia, autism and attention deficit disorders to
childhood maltreatment, according to other experts.

There is even a growing body of evidence concerning “a history of childhood
abuse among adolescents who later commit violent crimes,” according to
Teicher’s report.

Other doctors were quick to point out that positive parental support — and
sometimes even psychotherapy — can help normalize brain function.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder, for instance, can be treated with a field of
treatment known as cognitive behavioral therapy.

Then there is the idea that many people actually flourish despite childhood
trauma. In other words, many youngsters “move on and get past it,” said
Michael Howell, the development director for Dallas, Texas-based Kid Net
Foundation, a nonprofit group devoted to drug-exposed infants and children who
suffer abuse, neglect and abandonment

“Something, someone, somehow — be it an extended family, a church group or
whatever — has touched them and helped them continue on in a normal way,”
Howell said.

Among the differences Teicher and his researchers found between normal brains
and the brains of those abused or neglected in childhood is a condition called
limbic irritability. The brain’s limbic system controls many of the most
fundamental emotions.

But after studying 253 adults who came to an outpatient mental health clinic for
psychiatric assessment, the researchers found more than half reported being
physically and/or sexually abused as children. Those that had been abused tested
positive on a measure of their brain wave activity that looks for disturbances in
the limbic system.

Other findings linked abuse to poor development of the “verbal” hemisphere of
the brain, Teicher said, along with disruption in the cerebral communication that
goes on between the two hemispheres of the human brain.

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