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Family problems can stunt child's brain development

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Study finds children exposed to family problems experience more mental illness as adults.

If you’ve ever been exposed to family problems as a child, you know how difficult it can be – and now a new study confirms that even common family problems during childhood, as well as early adolescence, can influence brain development, leading to mental health disturbances in adulthood.

Dr. Nicholas Walsh of the University of East Anglia’s School of Psychology led the study, which scanned the brains of teenagers between 17 and 19 year old.

Using brain imaging technology, the scans revealed that the teens who experienced mild to moderate family problems from the time of birth to 11 years old exhibited changes in brain development that resulted in a smaller cerebellum – a part of the brain that controls learning skills, sensory-motor activity and stress response.

In addition, the researchers said that a smaller cerebellum is present in nearly every patient with a psychiatric disease; thus, they noted that teens with a smaller cerebellum are likely to have a higher risk of developing psychiatric illnesses in the future.

Unlike earlier studies that focused on the impact of abuse, maltreatment and severe neglect on children’s brain development, this new study focused on currently healthy teenagers and what kind of impact they experienced after being exposed to common, but chronic family difficulties.

Some examples of common, but chronic family problems, include tension or major arguments between parents, physical and/or emotional abuse, lack of affection between family members, and other family issues, including health or financial problems that negatively affect the family as a whole.

Dr. Walsh pointed out that reducing exposure to such family difficulties increases a child’s chance of developing a normal brain – therefore reducing the risk of developing subsequent psychiatric problems later on.

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The study, published in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical, involved 58 teenagers selected from a larger study of 1,200 teens, whose parents were interviewed to find out if the teens had been exposed to any negative family problems from birth until the age of 11.

The 58 teens were 14 years old when their parents were interviewed, and 27 of them had been classified as being exposed to family problems during childhood.

The teens were also interviewed at the ages of 14 and 17, which is when they were asked to report any childhood difficulties that they or those closest to them had gone through within the past year.

Surprisingly, when the teens had their brains scanned again between the ages of 17 and 19, the scans showed that those who reported experiencing difficulties at age 14 had actually developed increased volume in additional areas of their brain.

According to Dr. Walsh, this may be due to mild adversity experienced during childhood strengthening their coping skills as adults; thus, empowering them as a direct result of the difficulties they experienced and overcame when they were younger.

He explained that the study not only sheds light on how the general psychosocial environment affects brain development, but also reveals connections between specific areas of the brain and individual psychosocial factors.

In addition, the study discovered that those who experienced family difficulties not only perceived their family as dysfunctional, but they were also more likely to be diagnosed – or have a parent diagnosed – with a mental illness.

Dr. Walsh concluded that the study’s findings are important because exposure to difficulties in childhood and adolescence “is the biggest risk factor for later psychiatric disease,” which he added is a major public health problem and the number one cause of disability in the world today.

SOURCE: General and specific effects of early-life psychosocial adversities on adolescent grey matter volume, Walsh, N D, Dalgleish, T, Lombardo, M V, Dunn, V J, Van Harmelen, A, Ban, M, Goodyer, published in NeuroImage: Clinical, volume 4 (2014) p 308-318. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.nicl.2014.01.001