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Trauma in Childhood Is Found to Alter Neural Responses to Stress

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Image credit: Brain regions showing significantly greater activation in the high-trauma-exposed group in response to stress cues, compared to the low-trauma-exposed group / 2015 J. Elsey et al., Nature Publishing Group

It is said that earlier experience of trauma in life has been attributed to anxiety, depression, obesity as well as substance abuse in later stage of life. After the examination of brain scans of 64 teenagers, researchers have confirmed that such psychiatric disorders or risky behaviors might result in changed neural responses to stressful and relaxing cues respectively. This discovery was released in the latest issue of in Neuropsychopharmacology.

Based on neuroimaging studies before, it was thought that childhood maltreatment was related to abnormalities in certain areas of the brain, but these studies have been regarded to be general and limited to some extent. Therefore, Marc Potenza and his team of Yale have examined data collected from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) among 40 boys and 24 girls aged from 14 to 18 years old, who experienced various exposures to trauma linked maltreatment, such as exposure to prenatal cocaine, abuse and neglect. Especially, Marc Potenza ‘s team was eager to know which brain areas were activated to respond to individually tailored stimuli, for example, those associated with personally relevant stress, favorite foods, and neutral and relaxing scenarios.

It was discovered by the team that, in comparison with participants in the low-trauma group, those in the high-trauma group demonstrated greater activation in some cortical areas to respond to stress (pictured above). Such regions revealing “hyper-responsivity” to stress cues are vital to emotional regulation. But if the neutral or relaxing cues were considered, the high-trauma group demonstrated a remarkably reduced activation in the regions of cerebellar vermis and right cerebellum. When their roles played in the process, such as arousal regulating, this reduced activation could reflect decreased self-control. However, the participants in both groups failed to demonstrate remarkable differences in regard to their responses to favorite-food cues.

According to the research of Potenza’s team, youth exposed to higher levels of trauma might go through different brain responses to similar stressors. From their findings, it was suggested that it was possible that there could be different sensitivities to the relevant allocation of brain resources to stressful stimuli in the environment and might have complicated implications linked with efforts made for prevention and treatment.

Source: Scientific American

Journal reference: Elsey, James, et al. “Childhood Trauma and Neural Responses to Personalized Stress, Favorite-Food and Neutral-Relaxing Cues in Adolescents.”Neuropsychopharmacology (2015).

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