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How Early-Life Stress Affects the Brain

IMAGE: This is a graphic representation of areas of a child's brain that are affected by stressors such as poverty, neglect and physical abuse. (Image provided by UW-Madison)

IMAGE: This is a graphic representation of areas of a child's brain that are affected by stressors such as poverty, neglect and physical abuse. (Image provided by UW-Madison)


August 21, 2014

MADISON, Wis. – Chronic, toxic stress such as poverty, neglect and physical abuse can have a lasting impact, according to a study just completed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

One of the co-authors of the study, Sarah Romens, says early childhood stress can affect a child for the rest of his or her life.

"Kids who are exposed to the kind of stress that we saw for these kids tend to be at higher risk for all kinds of psychopathology and mental illness – depression, anxiety, behavior problems, academic problems, and also health problems – stress related health problems like heart disease and immune functioning disruption as well," she says.

The researchers studied 128 children who had experienced neglect or physical abuse early in life and took images of the children's brains.

There were noticeable differences in the areas of the brain involved in emotion and stress processing.

Romens and her fellow researchers say these changes to the child's brain may be tied to future behavior, health and even employment.

"I think that the big take-home message is that early social experiences and parenting can change our biology in ways that really help explain development of long-term health problems,” she points out. “And this is an exciting area to continue to unpack and understand exactly what's going on when children are living in an adverse environment."

The researchers say the findings of their study are not a crystal ball for seeing a child's future, but are a clear indicator that parents need to be very aware of the experiences their children are having.


Tim Morrissey, Public News Service - WI