Although some amount of stress is good for children, helping them learn, adapt and cope, too much of it caused by factors like poverty, neglect and physical abuse – scarring them for life.
A team of researchers in the University of Wisconsin-Madison have shown that exposure to excessive stress in early life can warp those parts of a developing child’s brain that are responsible for learning, memory and the processing of stress and emotion.
Such changes may contribute to negative impacts on behaviour, health, employment and even romance on a child’s later life.
Published in the journal Biological Psychiatry the study is of significant relevance to public policy makers, economists and epidemiologists, among others.
Seth Pollak, co-leader of the study and UW-Madison professor of psychology says: “We haven’t understood why our childhood experiences stay with us and have a lasting impact.”
Extreme stress during childhood shrinks the size of two important brain regions: the hippocampus and amygdala according to the new study.
“Given how costly these early stressful experiences are for society … unless we understand what part of the brain is affected, we won’t be able to tailor something to do about it,” he says.
The study involved 128 children around age 12 who had been subjected to physical abuse or neglect early in life or had been in the grip of poverty.
While it is unknown why early life stress may lead to smaller brain structures, says Hanson, the fact is that a smaller hippocampus is a demonstrated risk factor for negative outcomes.
“For me, it’s an important reminder that as a society we need to attend to the types of experiences children are having,” Pollak says. “We are shaping the people these individuals will become.”