Domestic Violence Triggers Brain Changes In Children
December 6, 2011

Domestic Violence Triggers Brain Changes In Children

Children exposed to family violence show the same pattern of activity in their brains as soldiers exposed to combat, according to a new study published Monday in the journal Current Biology.

The study is the first to use brain scans, or functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to investigate the impact of physical abuse and domestic violence on children´s emotional development.

Scientists at University College London found that exposure to family violence was associated with increased brain activity in two specific brain areas when children were shown pictures of angry faces.  These two areas of the brain -- -- the anterior insula and the amygdala -- are associated with threat detection.

Previous fMRI studies that scanned the brains of soldiers exposed to violent combat situations have also shown the same pattern of heightened activation in these brain areas, suggesting that both maltreated children and soldiers may have adapted to be 'hyper-aware' of danger in their environment, the researchers said.

However, the anterior insula and amygdala are also areas of the brain implicated in anxiety disorders. Neural adaptation in these regions may help explain why children exposed to family violence are at greater risk of developing anxiety problems later in life.

"We are only now beginning to understand how child abuse influences functioning of the brain's emotional systems. This research is important because it provides our first clues as to how regions in the child's brain may adapt to early experiences of abuse in the home,” said Dr. Eamon McCrory at the UCL Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, lead author of the study.

"All the children studied were healthy and none were suffering from a mental health problem. What we have shown is that exposure to family violence is associated with altered brain functioning in the absence of psychiatric symptoms and that these alterations may represent an underlying neural risk factor. We suggest these changes may be adaptive for the child in the short term but may increase longer term risk,” he said.

The researchers scanned the brains of 43 children, 20 of which had been exposed to documented violence at home.  These scans were then compared with those of 23 matched peers who had not experienced family violence.  The average age of the maltreated children was 12 years old, and all been referred to local social services in London.

While the children were in the scanner, they were presented with pictures of male and female faces showing sad, calm or angry expressions.  The children were then asked to decide whether the face was male or female, so that processing the emotion on the face was incidental.

The results showed that the children who had been exposed to violence at home exhibited increased brain activity in the anterior insula and amygdala in response to the faces with angry expressions.

"Dr. McCrory's groundbreaking research has undoubtedly taken us an important step closer to understanding the devastation which exposing children to violence can leave in its wake. His exciting findings confirm the traumatic effects these experiences have on brain development,” said Professor Peter Fonagy, Chief Executive of the Anna Freud Centre and professor of psychology at UCL.

"The report should energize clinicians and social workers to double their efforts to safeguard children from violence. By helping us understand the consequences of maltreatment the findings also offer fresh inspiration for the development of effective treatment strategies to protect children from the consequences of maltreatment."

Dr. McCrory said further research is needed to identify how childhood exposure to family violence leads to longer-term consequences.

"Even though we know that maltreatment represents one of the most potent environmental risk factors associated with anxiety and depression, relatively little is known how such adversity 'gets under the skin' and increases a child's later vulnerability,” he said.

"The next step for us is to try and understand how stable these changes are.  Not every child exposed to family violence will go on to develop a mental health problem; many bounce back and lead successful lives. We want to know much more about those mechanisms that help some children become resilient."

The study was published December 5 in the journal Current Biology.


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