A child’s brain is vulnerable – that is why a traumatic experience can negatively impact its development

Adversity early in life is one of the major risk factors that lead to behavioral and psychological problems in adulthood. High rates of aggressive behavior, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, suicidality, and depression have been observed in adults who went through maltreatment as a child.

Traumatic experiences in childhood can lead to increased drug use and dependence

People who experienced trauma as a child start taking drugs when they are still young. Experiencing stressful events while young can have a huge impact on stressful events that happen later in life. When you factor in unemployment and divorce to the traumatic experience during childhood, the likelihood of developing an addiction or psychological disorders is increased.

Extreme trauma during childhood can shrink the brain

Studies have shown that extreme emotional neglect and trauma can lead to brain development becoming depressed, which leads to a reduction in brain size and the changing of its structure and atrophy is some areas.

Looking the at the image above, the brain on the left is much large compared to the one on the right and has fewer structures, even though the children are of the same age. This difference is huge and it is not the result of any physical injury or abuse – it is the result of extreme emotional neglect and trauma.

Brain chemicals like oxytocin and cortisol help the brain cope with the management of stress and emotions

Oxytocin is a hormone that the brain produces naturally. It is known as the hormone of love and it promotes the bond between romantic partners, as well as mother and baby, and helps with the regulation of emotions and sociability. Each person produces different amounts of the hormone in their brain. Even though men and women regulate their oxytocin differently, it is important to our day-to-day functioning all the same. The way we react to stress depends on the variation in the oxytocin gene.

The oxytocin system’s development, which begins developing in the womb and resumes developing after birth, can be influenced by environmental factors as well. The crucial changes happen during babyhood, pre-pubescence, and adolescence, depending on our experiences. Negative or positive experiences during childhood can mold the oxytocin system.

When children have loving and nurturing parents, the oxytocin system can develop normally. On the other hand, exposure to trauma, like illness and stress, can affect the functioning and development of oxytocin and its receptor in the brain.

Studies in mice have shown that early life trauma alters the functioning of the oxytocin receptor

These changes are long-lasting and impact behavioral outcomes in a major way. When the mice were exposed to adversity early in life, depressive and anxiety disorders increased and persisted throughout adulthood.

The same is true in humans that have experienced childhood trauma. Women that were abused as children had low oxytocin levels in their adult lives. Men who experienced stress in childhood also had low levels of oxytocin. The levels of oxytocin were also low in children who were raised in a Romanian orphanage under neglectful conditions.

An altered oxytocin system is associated with poor stress management and an increased risk of becoming dependant on drugs

On the other hand, an oxytocin system that is well-regulated displayed greater resilience against addiction and excessive drug use. Studies on animals show that oxytocin can reduce anxiety, minimize the effects of drugs, improve stress management, minimize anxiety and boost the reward system associated with a social connection. While the results are promising, more studies on humans are needed.