Brain Scans Reveal How Badly Emotional Abuse Damages Kids

While they were always aware of the impact of our childhood experienced on our cognitive development, experts were not sure to what degree until recently.

Yet, brain scans reveal the lasting effects of both, physical and emotional, trauma inflicted on a child.

Yet, emotional abuse hasn’t traditionally received the same attention as physical trauma, but researchers now recognize its detrimental effects on a person’s ability to function normally as an adult.

Emotional abuse and neglect can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In a side by side comparison, brain scans of an emotionally healthy child versus a neglected child, show huge differences in both size and structure of each brain. They have been shared by Professor Bruce Perry, the chief of psychiatry at Texas Children’s Hospital.

He explained:

“These images illustrate the negative impact of neglect on the developing brain. In the CT scan on the left is an image from a healthy three-year-old with an average head size.

The image on the right is from a three-year-old child suffering from severe sensory-deprivation neglect. His child’s brain is significantly smaller than average and has enlarged ventricles and cortical atrophy.”

The brain of an emotionally traumatized child is visibly much smaller, and there are noticeable spaces within its structure. Such structural damage to the brain means that a child will likely suffer developmental delays and memory problems.

Dr. Perry explains that later in life, children who have been emotionally neglected struggle to form healthy relationships and they could end up with attachment disorders or become overly dependent on an individual.

Moreover, “cortical atrophy” is a condition common in Alzheimer’s patients.

Dr. Perry concluded:

“Healthy development of the neural systems which allow optimal social and emotional functioning depends upon attentive, nurturing caregiving in infancy and opportunities to form and maintain a diversity of relationships with other children and adults throughout childhood.”

In case PTSD is not dealt with at an early age, it can dramatically affect the development and functionality of the hippocampus, causing issues like developmental delays, memory issues, attachment issues, and uncontrollable emotions.

Researchers at Stanford University used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to observe two groups of subjects, aged 10-17. Sixteen of the participants experienced PTSD symptoms, while the rest 11 did not.

They concluded that children with post-traumatic stress disorders and high levels of the stress hormone cortisol were more likely to experience a decrease in the size of their hippocampus.

 “The hippocampus worked equally well in stressed and control subjects when the word list was first introduced. However, subjects with PTSD symptoms made more errors on the recall part of the test and showed less hippocampus activity than control subjects doing the same task.”

Dr. Victor Carrion, a child psychiatrist from the hospital, said:

“Although everyday levels of stress are necessary to stimulate normal brain development, excess levels can be harmful. We’re not talking about the stress of doing your homework or fighting with your dad.”We’re talking about traumatic stress. These kids feel like they’re stuck in the middle of a street with a truck barreling down at them.”

Subjects with the worst hippocampus function were also most likely to experience a specific set of PTSD symptoms.

Such impairment was linked to “avoidance and numbing” symptoms of PTSD, such as difficulty remembering the trauma, lack of emotion, and feeling cut off from others.

This information is invaluable for teachers and others in the position of a caregiver to a small child. The key is to understand the possible effects of neglect and emotional abuse, effectively diffuse a situation, and support the further development of the child in a healthy direction.