Troubled family life affects child’s brain development

Child brain development affected by troubled family life depicted by Swain & Co with sad child holding a worn teddy bearTroubled family life, such as stress from break ups, family arguments and neglect, take an obvious toll on children as they grow up.

Many decades of research have also documented that the psychological consequences of troubled family life as a child can affect a person well into adulthood. This includes things such as struggles with depression and difficulties maintaining relationships.

Now, new studies are finding that a troubled home life can have profound effects on brain development.

Children’s brains are extremely sensitive. A new study concludes that even sleeping infants are affected by family arguments.

Researchers at the University of Oregon showed with MRI scans that infants from families who reported more than average levels of conflict in the home were more sensitive to aggressive or angry voices.

While asleep, these infants had an uptake in brain activity in response to sentences that were read out in an angry tone. Most of the activity was clustered in the parts of the brain responsible for regulating emotions and stress.

Alice Graham, a doctoral student who led the study, which will feature in the ‘Psychological Science’ journal explains, “Infants are constantly absorbing and learning things, not just when we think we’re teaching them.”

She goes on to explain that therefore it we should expect that what is going on in the environment of the child is literally shaping the physical connection of the child’s brain.

As with family fighting, neglect leaves no external marks but profoundly affects brain development.

A Yale University Study of teenagers found evidence using MRI scans that neglect and emotional abuse in childhood reduced the density of the cells in emotion-regulating regions of the brain later on.

The teenager in the Yale study did not meet the criteria for full-blown psychiatric disorders, yet many experiences emotional problems such as risk taking and impulsive behaviour, according the paper that was published in the ‘Journal of the American Medical Association’ in 2011.

The effects in adulthood are also dire. A survey of adult patients by the Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center found that neglect in childhood appears to increase a person’s risk of stroke as they get older. The mechanism behind this is unknown, according the paper published in ‘Neurology’ in 2012.

Hilary Blumberg who led the Yale Study says that although young brains seem easily damaged by neglect or stress at home, the damage is unlikely to be permanent if treated in time.

Recognising a teen’s lack of impulse control as a possible symptom of neglect-induced brain changes may help social workers and medical professionals offer the right treatments.

In the future, this could mean that the treatment focus on neurological changes, such as regular exercise is shown to slow the loss of gray matter in the brain caused by aging; so perhaps it could protect against neglect-related losses also.

Researchers hope that by continuing to investigate the brain development changes which occur due to troubled family life, it will ultimately mean that methods can be created and used to undo the damage at any point in a person’s life.