Early childhood trauma (especially in girls) can change the brain.
A study conducted at Northeastern University has used rat models to map the changes to the brain caused by early life trauma. Their data suggests changes can be sex-specific, but they aren't necessarily permanent.
In a recent paper, the researchers found that female rats, in particular, developed abnormal connections between two areas of the brain in response to neglect. These are the same areas that show abnormal activity in brain scans of children raised in orphanages, as well as those who have suffered from child abuse or other forms of severe maltreatment. Children with this abnormal activity are more likely to develop anxiety later on in childhood or adolescence.
Honeycutt and her colleagues were examining the connections between the basolateral amygdala, part of an almond-shaped structure tucked in near your temple, and the prefrontal cortex, which is right behind your forehead.
When you see something that might be a threat (say, a tiger), your amygdala fires off signals to several areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, indicating that you should be frightened. The prefrontal cortex responds by integrating information from other areas of the brain, like context clues (The tiger can’t reach us.) or prior memories (This is a zoo. We’ve been to a zoo before), and signals the amygdala to, essentially, calm down.
The connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex develop throughout childhood and adolescence. Research has demonstrated, however, that these connections seemed to develop abnormally in children who had experienced severe neglect and later developed anxiety-like disorders.
The important thing, though, is that these changes don’t have to be permanent.
Understanding the differences in how male and female brains develop, and the impact of neglect on this process, could help improve treatments and interventions for children before mental illnesses begin to manifest themselves.
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