Jun 17, 2019 | Updated: 11:38 AM EDT

Brain Scans Reveal How Badly Emotional Abuse Damages Kids

Jun 14, 2019 08:43 AM EDT

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A brain scan was done to two children of the same age, but one is an emotionally abused toddler and one is a toddler with happy home life. It showed that the scan of the emotionally abused toddler is significantly less structured while the scan of the toddler with happy home life is bigger.

"This child is suffering from severe sensory deprivation neglect," writes Professor Bruce Perry, chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital. Perry shared the images on a newspaper and he showed how childhood neglect affects cognitive development later in life.

He wrote: "These images illustrate the negative impact of neglect on the developing brain. In the CT scan on the left is an image from a healthy 3-year-old with average head size. The image on the right is from a 3-year-old child suffering from severe sensory-deprivation neglect. This child's brain is significantly smaller than average and has enlarged ventricles and cortical atrophy."

The CT scan on the left shows a normal child's brain, while the one on the right is the brain of a child who has been the victim of emotional trauma.
(Photo : Bruce D Perry/The Child Trauma Academy) The CT scan on the left shows a normal child's brain, while the one on the right is the brain of a child who has been the victim of emotional trauma.

Basically, what the whole study means is that the child will suffer developmental delays and problems with memory. Cortical atrophy is something that is more commonly seen in older people who are suffering from Alzheimer's disease. It is well known that physical abuse can damage a child's brain and it could lead to life-long complications, sometimes it can even result in death.

The effects of emotional abuse are less often discussed and thought about, but no less detrimental to a child's overall health. Perry explains that children and even adults who have suffered emotional neglect can find it difficult to form healthy relationships. They may end up with attachment issues, in which they may become reliant or dependent or they may even end up socially isolated later in their life.

Numerous studies have found that kids who experience emotional distress from a young age have problems with memory and emotions. A 2009 study from Stanford Children's Hospital found that children with post-traumatic stress disorders and high levels of the stress hormone cortisol were more likely to experience a decrease in the size of their hippocampus, which is the part of their brain that is responsible for processing emotion and memory.

Dr. Victor Carrion, a child psychiatrist from the hospital said: "Although everyday levels of stress are necessary to stimulate normal brain development, excess levels can be harmful. We're not talking about the stress of doing your homework or fighting with your dad. We're talking about traumatic stress. These kids feel like they're stuck in the middle of a street with a truck barreling down at them."

Other studies have linked high levels of stress in childhood to heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity later in life.

Perry concluded in his paper: "Healthy development of the neural systems which allow optimal social and emotional functioning depends upon attentive, nurturing caregiving in infancy and opportunities to form and maintain a diversity of relationships with other children and adults throughout childhood."

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