The effects of child abuse do not disappear when the child becomes an adult. In fact, a recent study using the brain scans of abuse victims reveals that chronic stress levels caused by child abuse can severely damage adult bodies and minds. Those who have been abused as children face a greater risk of psychological ailments such as depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, panic, substance abuse, and eating disorders; while they also face a heightened risk of physical problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and malnutrition.
Nearly 4 million children in the U.S. are evaluated each year for child abuse or neglect. Fear, anxiety, and stress plague their life every day. Researchers from Harvard have now conducted the largest study yet using brain scans to reveal the effects that child abuse has on specific regions in the brain. Dr. Martin Teicher and his research team evaluated approximately 200 people, aged 18 to 25, who had been abused or neglected as a child. The study group was composed of mostly middle class, well-educated persons.
A Higher Risk For Depression and PTSD
The more abuse a child had suffered, the more severe they suffered from depression and PTSD. Twenty-five percent of those abused suffered from major depression later in life and 7 percent acquired PTSD. Study participants who were abused physically, verbally, and were neglected had a much higher percentage of depression and PTSD. Fifty-three percent suffered from depression and 40 percent suffered from PTSD.
Stress From Abuse Causes Brain Damage
Brain scans revealed that child abuse damages the brain even if the adult never develops a diagnosable disorder. The chronic stress caused by child abuse or neglect can actually kill the very brain cells that would be able to help them cope with stress later in their lives.
The hippocampus transmits stress signals to the subiculum which determines the body’s behavioral and biochemical responses. The subiculum may signal the "fight or flight" response when the mind feels there is danger. Unfortunately, if the subiculum is chronically bombarded with stress signals it creates toxic levels of neurotransmitters that will kill brain cells in the hippocampus. The loss of these regulating cells creates a greater risk for people to develop depression or PTSD.
Researchers also indicate that the subiculum may affect a person’s risk for addiction. The subiculum regulates stress responses that involve dopamine levels. High stress may raise the level of cravings, enticing individuals to find relief from drugs or alcohol or pushing them towards relapse.
A Difficult Past Makes a Difficult Future
Another recent study by Cathy Spatz Widom, Ph.D., Psychology Department at John Jay College at the City University of New York, revealed disorders related to specific kinds of abuse. Widom’s group found that often the following types of disorders arose after the following types of abuse:
- Sexual abuse- poor oral health, hepatitis, HIV, and malnutrition
- Physical abuse-malnutrition and diabetes
- Neglect/Maltreatment-poor visual and oral health, diabetes and impaired airflow
The stress and fear inflicted upon a child who is abused creates haunting memories and physical scars; but, recent research reveals that it can also cause irreparable damage to the brain. Once the abuse subsides, the individual must rely on treatment and support to help them manage their stress without it controlling their lives.