Last week I came across a news release from The University College, London, that gave some scary information about a new study published in Current Biology:
Maltreated children show same pattern of brain activity as combat soldiers
The article explained that children exposed to family violence show the same pattern of activity in their brains as soldiers exposed to combat.
The study that is reported shows fMRI (functional MRI) brain scans of children who suffer physical abuse and domestic violence. The researchers found that exposure to family violence was associated with increased brain activity in two specific brain areas (the anterior insula and the amygdala) when children viewed pictures of angry faces.
Previous fMRI studies that scanned the brains of soldiers exposed to violent combat situations have shown the same pattern of heightened activation in these two areas of the brain, which are associated with threat detection.
The authors suggest that both maltreated children and soldiers may have adapted to be 'hyper-aware' of danger in their environment.
However, the anterior insula and amygdala are also areas of the brain implicated in anxiety disorders. The changes that occur in the brains of children exposed to family violence are at greater risk of developing anxiety problems later in life.
In the study, which is published in the journal Current Biology, 43 children had their brains scanned using an fMRI scanner. 20 children who had been exposed to documented violence at home were compared with 23 matched peers who had not experienced family violence. The average age of the maltreated children was 12 years old and they had all been referred to local social services in London.
When the children were in the scanner they were presented with pictures of male and female faces showing sad, calm or angry expressions.
The children had only to decide if the face was male or female - processing the emotion on the face was incidental.
As described, the children who had been exposed to violence at home showed increased brain activity in the anterior insula and amygdala in response to the angry faces.
The researchers stated that "The next step for us is to try and understand how stable these changes are. Not every child exposed to family violence will go on to develop a mental health problem; many bounce back and lead successful lives. We want to know much more about those mechanisms that help some children become resilient."
This study is perhaps unsurprising. However, when I came across it, I thought it was a powerful and poignant reminder of just how much we, as parents, need to be aware of our interactions with our children. Consistent violence exposure causes their brains to function as if they were combat soldiers.