Scientists are beginning to see the evidence of altered brain functioning as a result of early abuse and neglect. Growth in each region of a baby’s brain largely depends on receiving stimulation which spurs activity in that region. This stimulation forms the foundation for learning.1
Researchers use the term plasticity to describe the way the brain creates, strengthens, and discards synapses and neuronal pathways in response to the environment. The brain’s plasticity is the reason that environment plays a vital role in brain development.
The ability to adapt to our environment is a part of normal development. All children need stimulation and nurturance for healthy development. If these are lacking – if a child’s caretakers are indifferent or hostile – the child’s brain development may be impaired. Because the brain adapts to its environment, it will adapt to a negative environment just as readily as it will adapt to a positive environment.
Children who experience the stress of physical or sexual abuse will focus their brains’ resources on survival and responding to threats in their environment. Because the brain ultimately controls all bodily functions, the overwhelming stress of maltreatment experiences in childhood is associated with alterations of biological stress systems and with adverse influences on brain development. Studies have shown that many infants and children who have been maltreated have abnormal secretions of cortisol, indicating that their bodies’ responses to stress have been impaired.
The effects of abuse and neglect on the developing brain during children’s first few years can result in various mental health problems. For example:
- Diminished growth in the left hemisphere may increase the risk for depression.
- Irritability in the limbic system can set the stage for the emergence of panic disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Smaller growth in the hippocampus and limbic abnormalities can increase the risk of dissociative disorders and memory impairments.
- Impairment in the connection between the two brain hemispheres has been linked to symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
- Severely neglected children who have been deprived of sensory stimulation – including touch, movement, and sound – may be at risk for Sensory Integration Disorder.
- Children who have been raised in environments that totally disregarded their needs for comfort, stimulation, and affection may be at risk for attachment disorders.
This research continues to demonstrate the serious, long-term consequences of abuse and neglect on brain development, and subsequent physical, cognitive, emotional, and social growth.
1 “Understanding the Effects of Maltreatment on Early Brain Development,” National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information (HHS), 2001.