Early life stress alters the brain

Research presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience suggests that early life stress can have a lasting impact on the brain. Monkeys raised under stressful conditions show enlargement of several brain areas related to the regulation of emotion. Similar differences have been found in the brains of humans exposed to early life stress, but it has been difficult to determine whether those changes were present at birth. Researchers speculated that these brain differences may make children vulnerable to stress-related neuropsychiatric disorders later in life.

A second study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the brain circuits activated when children perform an activity. Researchers asked children, who had either been raised under stressful (e.g., institutionalized) or non-stressful conditions, to respond when shown a face with a neutral expression and to abstain if the face was frightened. Kids in both groups performed equally well on the task, but used different brain areas when problem-solving. Children raised in non-stressful circumstances used brain circuits involved in perception and cognition. Kids who had experienced early life stress used brain areas involved in emotion – suggesting that early life experiences may increase emotional reactivity of the brain.

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