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Children's Health

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Brain Development Harmed in Mistreated Kids

Study May Help Explain Why Child Abuse Often Leads to Mental Problems Like Depression, Post-Traumatic Stress

Why Early-Life Stress Sometimes Leads to Mental Illness

Previous studies have linked the hippocampus to a host of activities. It is thought to be important for forming, sorting, and storing new memories and for processing emotions. But the hippocampus is also vulnerable to stress. Studies have found that people and animals exposed to stress hormones over a long period of time have smaller hippocampi than those who are not similarly stressed.

Shrinkage in this brain region has been shown in people who have mental illnesses like schizophrenia and depression.

Researchers found that three key regions of the hippocampus were nearly 6% to 7% smaller in people who were significantly mistreated as kids compared to those who were not.

The brain findings were there, whether or not a person was showing signs of a mental illness like depression or PTSD.

Based on previous research, “It seems like there’s this sensitive period between 3 to 5 years of age when the hippocampus may be very sensitive,” Teicher says.

“The consequences may not be [apparent] initially; they may be silent for many years before they unfold,” he says.

But he says people who had rough childhoods should also know that although early life experiences may be important for brain function, other studies have shown that some of the brain changes can be undone.

“Things like vigorous exercise will change it. Mental stimulation will influence it,” Teicher says. “Changes in the hippocampus are plastic and can be modified.”

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