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Childhood Abuse Can Changes Brain Structure

A study[1] published in December, 2011 in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine is relevant when exploring the causes of Borderline Personality Disorder.. MedPage Today says about this study "... advances in cognitive neuroscience allow scientists to begin to understand the manner by which childhood maltreatment affects subsequent psychopathology."[2]

About 70% of people with BPD have a history of being abused as a child. This study, completed at Yale University, looked at 42 teenagers who did not have a psychiatric diagnosis, but who reported a history of abuse and/or neglect. Gray-matter (the neural tissue which makes up most of the volume of the brain) was measured using a high-resolution MRI, and the brain volumes of teens with no history of abuse were compared to the teens who reported abuse histories. What they found was that abuse led to reductions in gray-matter volume in many parts of the brain. Gray-matter is associated with sensory processing, emotional regulation, intelligence, and other brain functions.

Interestingly, different types of abuse impacted different regions of the brain. Without getting into the complicated details of brain anatomy, people with histories of physical abuse, physical neglect and emotional neglect showed gray-matter deficits in different areas of the brain, although there was also overlap in areas impacted. Also fascinating was that there was no noticeable deficits in gray-matter volume associated with sexual abuse or emotional abuse.

Borderline Personality Disorder is, in part, a disorder of both emotional regulation and impulse control. This study found that there was a gender difference in the regions of the brain impacted by the abuse histories. Girls had deficits in regions that are associated withemotional regulation, while the deficits boys had tended to be in areas of the brain associated with impulse control.

Previous studies had discovered that adults with histories of childhood trauma had decreased gray-matter volumes, but it had not been determined when the deficits were first present. The deficits are measurable in adolescence even before the teens meet criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis. This opens up the possibility of using brain imaging to detect gray-matter deficits in children and adolescents with abuse histories (early detection) and to develop interventions that could reduce the risk of developing psychiatric disorders.

Mat Chirman (c) 2012


[1]Edmiston, E, et al "Corticostriatal-limbic gray matter morphology in adolescents with self-reported exposure to childhood maltreatment", Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 2011; 165: 1069-1077

[2]http://www.medpagetoday.com/tbprint.cfm?tbid=30029