Early Childhood Trauma & Brain Function

The experience of extreme neglect, abuse or abandonment can lead to the development of severe emotional, psychological and neurobiological impairment in infants and young children. Without consistent professional treatment and placement into a loving, caring environment, children who have been victims of severe neglect and abuse may grow into adults who are incapable of age-appropriate functioning. Learn how early childhood trauma affects brain function and, ultimately, inhibits normal development in infants and child.

Healthy Brain Development

The building blocks of the brain, neurons, are formed during fetal development. The portion of the brain required for essential functioning, such as breathing and heart rate, consists of the brainstem and midbrain, which are mostly developed at birth. The areas of the brain responsible for executive functioning, such as emotional regulation, communication, and problem-solving, are only in the beginning stages of development at infancy. Under normal, supportive conditions, these areas develop rapidly during the first three years of life. Key neurological developments begin at infancy through age 3 (and beyond):

  • Myelination. The protective outer layer of brain cells is the myelin sheath, and myelination that occurs in the first three years of life is required for the fast, clear transmission of neurotransmitters.
  • Plasticity. The brain’s ability to change following repeated stimulation, plasticity that occurs in children who are developing normally promotes ongoing learning.
  • Stress response. The brain produces chemicals to help the body respond to stressors. Overproduction of these substances can cause long-term damage to infants and children.

Early Childhood Trauma & The Brain

Part of normal development in an infant is receiving appropriate responses to queues. When a baby cries, it is fed or held. When it is uncomfortable from being wet, it gets changed. If a caregiver does not respond to a baby’s needs and neglects the child, the child learns that it cannot trust adults.

Furthermore, structural brain changes occur that severely impact an infant or small child’s ability to relate to others appropriately.
The stress placed on an infant from this type of neglect or abuse is commonly called toxic stress. Neurologically, children who have been subject to this type of abuse incur multiple developmental issues.

As published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, a recent finding is that children with a history of abuse suffer from “cell type-specific changes in DNA methylation of oligodendrocyte genes” and were observed as having reduced myelin sheath thickness. The implications of this discovery is that children with histories of abuse will lack the capability to process information as quickly as children who benefit from a positive caregiver influence.

Furthermore, Harvard University’s working paper, Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Brain, notes that increased adrenaline and cortisol production in response to toxic stress can lead to long-term learning, stress regulation, and memory impairment. Even after a child is placed in a loving, caring environment, elevated cortisol and adrenaline levels have been witnessed through research.

Multiple areas of the brain, such as the hippocampus, corpus callosum, cerebellum, and prefrontal cortex, have been found to be smaller in children with histories of severe abuse. Combined, these areas of the brain directly contribute to arousal, emotion, motor functioning, behavior, learning, and memory. Children with such histories are sometimes identified as having reactive attachment disorder, RAD or disinhibited social engagement disorder DSED .

What is Reactive Attachment Disorder?

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, reactive attachment disorder is a severe condition in which children exhibit difficulties forming an emotional attachment to others. Symptoms of this disorder may include:

  • Defiant behavior
  • Psychological preoccupation
  • Failure to thrive
  • Unresponsiveness or detached behavior
  • Extreme stress when placed in social situations
  • Acting out when caregivers attempt to comfort

Because children are unable to form healthy bonds with loving caregivers, let alone strangers, every aspect of normal development, including social, psychological, and emotional considerations, is impaired. Caregivers must engage in ongoing family therapy, which may include behavioral management training before positive outcomes begin to materialize. With ongoing therapies, children with histories of severe abuse can learn to trust others, build relationships, and function in social situations.