How Does Child Maltreatment Affect Brain Development?

Child maltreatment can have a number of long-term effects on brain development. For the past three years, I’ve been working on a pilot study of this topic with one of the most respected researchers of child maltreatment, Dr. Dante Cicchetti of the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development’s Institute of Child Development. Early results of our study suggest that maltreatment may actually cause changes to the structure and connections in the brain itself.

The study builds from Dr. Cicchetti’s long-term work with a group of children who he began to study over 20 years ago at the Mt. Hope Family Center in Rochester, NY. The children, now in their mid-30s, were between 6 and 12 when they entered the study. All had been identified as at-risk, based on living in poverty, and half had a history of childhood maltreatment substantiated by the Department of Human Services. They attended the Mt. Hope summer camp and, alongside normal recreational activities, participated in Dr. Cicchetti’s study. Since that time, Dr. Cicchetti has followed the children as they grew up, taking measurements of their mental health, emotional state and patterns of behavior.

Dr. Cicchetti approached me about lending our expertise in brain imaging to his longitudinal study of risk and resilience in this group. With funding from Dr. Cicchetti’s prestigious Klaus J. Jacobs research prize, we were able to use MRI technology for the first time to learn more about the function and structure of the subjects’ brains. We’ve taken MRI measurements of approximately 100 individuals from the original group, including both those who were maltreated in childhood, and those who were not maltreated but had experienced other risk factors such as poverty.

We’re not done analyzing all the data from this pilot study, but our initial results are consistent with previous reports suggesting that childhood maltreatment affects how adults perceive and process emotional information. Many of these experiments were based on showing participants pictures of faces portraying negative emotions (fright, anger, etc.). In one study, Dr. Cicchetti and his colleagues started by removing many of the pixels from a photo of an angry face, then gradually adding them back until the subject could recognize it. They found that individuals who had experienced childhood maltreatment were much better at identifying these negative emotions than the comparison group. In the MRI data, we found that emotion areas of the brain, including the amygdala, were activated differently by adults with and without a history of childhood maltreatment.

Child Maltreatment and Brain Networks

We also detected network differences in the brains of those who were maltreated. When conducting our experiments, we saw changes in the communications between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, the part of the brain that governs emotions.

We believe these changes are adaptive responses to childhood maltreatment. If a child is being physically abused by a parent or caregiver, detecting even small changes in his or her mood becomes vitally important to survival. This could explain why maltreated children are better at detecting subtle emotions. However, this sensitivity—one that is so important to their well-being growing up—can become maladaptive in adulthood. We don’t want children to grow up overly sensitive to others and mistakenly believing they are angry or projecting negative emotions onto others. With our early MRI data, we don’t know whether the difference in brain networks reflects maladaption or resilience, but this is one critical question that we hope to address in our data.

Childhood maltreatment also has a detrimental effect on executive function—the ability to regulate behavior—and can amplify conditions like ADHD. Again, it’s fairly logical; our ability to make good decisions generally breaks down in times of high stress, and maltreated children have experienced extended periods of stress during the time when they are being socialized and learning how to follow rules. The altered networks in prefrontal cortex suggest that the development of systems that regulate our behavior have also been affected by childhood maltreatment. Interestingly, we found a potential relationship of maltreatment to obesity; a greater percentage of our maltreated group were not able to fit comfortably into our MRI machines.

Our work is not done; we still have a lot of data to analyze—particularly looking at how maltreatment affects brain networks involved in the regulation of emotions and decision-making. We hope to answer a lot of questions about how childhood maltreatment impacts executive function. Along with Dr. Cicchetti and the Mt. Hope Center, we expect our findings will help provide a better scientific foundation for developing therapeutic techniques that are specifically designed for children who have been maltreated.

Tips For Nurturing Someone Who Has Experienced Child Maltreatment

It’s often difficult to know how to help nurture a child who’s been mistreated or neglected, especially without training. Here are five tips you can use to help guide and mentor someone who has experienced child maltreatment.

Trauma-focused therapy. This is a branch of cognitive therapy focused on helping children and adolescents overcome traumatic incidents. Trauma-focused therapy is an evidence-based approach that has demonstrated results in addressing the emotional distress and distorted beliefs that can be caused by child maltreatment.

Understanding the effects. Because child maltreatment affects executive function, it can cause children to have difficulties following rules or regulating their emotions. It’s important for adults to understand that this behavior is not defiance, but a symptom of the trauma the child has experienced.

Help develop executive function skills. Many activities and games can help children develop executive function skills and learn to follow rules. These include everything from “Simon Says” to the simple card game, “Uno.”

Routine is critical. Child maltreatment often goes hand-in-hand with a chaotic living environment. As a result, it’s important to give a child a predictable routine, schedule, and clear expectations to demonstrate that adults can be trusted and depended on.

Encourage open communication. Kids who suffered from child maltreatment often hide their emotions for fear of causing an angry reaction from their parent or caregiver. Let them know that they are free to express their thoughts and feelings; it’s a crucial part of the healing process.

Kathleen M. Thomas

About the Author

Kathleen M. Thomas, Ph.D.

  • Professor
  • Institute of Child Development
  • College of Education and Human Development

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