New Science this Week #2: Childhood Trauma Alters Neural Responses to Stress

We’ve known that traumatic childhood experiences have affected the psychology of the person who experienced them, but now we have the data and the evidence to back it up. Even better, we are even learning exactly how these experiences affect future decisions and experiences.

Yale’s Marc Potenza and colleagues examined functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data for 40 boys and 24 girls between 14 and 18 years old with varying exposure to maltreatment-related trauma. This ranged from prenatal cocaine exposure to abuse and neglect. In particular, the team wanted to see which brain regions were activated in response to individually tailored stimuli: personally relevant stress, favorite foods, and neutral and relaxing scenarios (like sitting in the park or unwinding in your own room).

The team found that, compared to the low-trauma group, participants in the high-trauma group showed greater activation in several cortical regions in response to stress. These areas showing “hyper-responsivity” to stress cues have important roles in emotional regulation. As for the neutral or relaxing cues, the high-trauma group showed a significantly decreased activation in the cerebellar vermis and right cerebellum. With their roles in processes like regulating arousal, this decreased activation might reflect diminished self-control. The two groups didn’t show significant differences in their responses to favorite-food cues.

The work indicates that “youth exposed to higher levels of trauma may experience different brain responses to similar stressors,” Potenza tells Reuters. “These findings suggest the possibility that there might exist different sensitivities to the relative allocation of brain resources to stressful stimuli in the environment and may hold multiple implications for prevention and treatment efforts.”

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