Child Abuse Can Cause Permanent Damage to the Brain, Body, and Emotional Well-Being


In the first years of life, a child is especially vulnerable to abuse, not only because of their physical fragility, but also because the early years can be an especially challenging time for even the most well-meaning parents.

Many cases of child abuse aren’t intentional acts of violence committed by violent, uncaring parents--rather, child abuse often occurs in an instant of unthinking frustration and anger. An instant of uncontrolled anger is all it takes to shake a baby and inflict permanent brain damage, to yank a small arm out of its socket, or to inflict alarming physical pain and longlasting emotional injury.

Abuse During Childhood Can Permanently Rewire and Restructure the Brain

Researchers at McLean Hospital, the largest psychiatric affiliate of Harvard Medical School, have found that child abuse and neglect can "rewire" the developing brain. When brain circuitry is altered during the formative years it may eventually cause such disorders as anxiety and depression to more readily surface in adulthood.

According to Martin Teicher, MD, PhD, director of the Developmental Biopsychiatry Research Program, "science shows that childhood maltreatment may produce changes in both brain function and structure. These changes are permanent. This is not something people can just get over and get on with their lives."

During the course of their studies, the researchers found that four abnormalities are more likely to be present in victims of child abuse and neglect:

Changes to the Limbic System, the area of the brain that, together with the hypothalamus, controls hunger, thirst, emotional reactions and biological rhythms. In addition, it coordinates complex activities requiring a sequence of performance steps. Changes to the limbic system can result in epileptic seizures and abnormal electroencephalograms (EEG), usually affecting the left hemisphere of the brain, which is associated with more self-destructive behavior and more aggression.

Deficient Development of the Left Side of the Brain, which can contribute to depression and impaired memory.

Impaired Corpus Callosum, the pathway integrating the two hemispheres of the brain, which can result in dramatic shifts in mood and personality.

Increased Blood Flow in the Cerebellar Vermis, the part of the brain involved in emotion, attention, and regulation of the limbic system, which can disrupt emotional balance.

Animal studies have shown that neglect and emotional trauma triggers changes in hormones and neurotransmitters within parts of the brain that are responsible for regulating fear and anxiety. The researchers suggest that this may also occur in children. As Teicher emphasizes, "We know that an animal exposed to stress and neglect early in life develops a brain that is wired to experience fear, anxiety and stress. We think the same is true of people."

In July 2000, the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reported that early emotional abuse can distort the processes of attachment and affective development. Child abuse and neglect could also impair the individual’s capacity to develop appropriate emotional responses, leading to lifelong emotional and social difficulties.