Brain Development In Victims Of Child Abuse

1547 words - 6 pages

Child abuse is a widespread problem in America and beyond. Every year more than 3 million reports of child abuse are made in the United States involving more than 6 million children(1a). For many years, experts believed that the negative effects of child abuse, such as emotional problems, flashbacks to traumatic events, and even learning problems, were psychological phenomena only, able to be cured with therapy. Now, however, beliefs are being changed with the help of tools such as MRI imaging, able to detect actual changes in brain anatomy, and it appears that what doesn't kill you may still permanently weaken you, at least when it comes to child abuse.

The chief danger to the brain in child abuse, besides direct injury by the abuser, is the stress placed on fragile, developing tissue. Traumatic stress placed on the brain, such as that caused by abuse, will activate the locus ceruleus, which through a release of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine will cause the release of neurotransmitters such as epinephrine, dopamine, and more norepinephrine (2). These neurotransmitters are called catecholamines and are complemented by glucocorticoid stress hormones such as cortisol (2). Stress hormones and neurotransmitters are necessary to the normal function of the brain, and are to some point beneficial, but unusually high levels of these chemicals caused by abuse, especially over an extended period of time, can be very harmful (3). When levels of glucocorticoid hormones are elevated for an extent of several days due to stress, the neurons receiving these hormones begin to be damaged (4). Neurons begin to atrophy and the growth of new neurons is halted (4). If the stress continues for too long, neurons will die (4). This problem is exacerbated by the hormones themselves, which due to their water-insoluble properties will stay in the bloodstream for hours or days (3). The water-soluble neurotransmitters, on the other hand, only last for seconds (3). This persistance of the stress hormones makes it hard for the brain to return to its natural, unstressed state.

The brain develops in such a way that it leaves itself vulnerable to these negative influences. The prenatal brain develops an overabundance of neurons, some of which are then carefully eliminated before age 4 (5). In a process similar to this, the amount of synapses between neurons is built up during early childhood and then pruned back for the next 30 years of life (5). These two processes are both disturbed by elevated levels of stress hormones (5). The two centers of the brain with the most postnatal changes, including the growth of new neurons after birth, are the hippocampus, which is part of the limbic system, and the cerebellar vermis (6). The hippocampus is in charge of creating and retrieving memories, working together with the other parts of the limbic system, such as the amygdala, which records the emotions for each memory. The vermis controls the production and release of two of...

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