Effects of Early-Life Psychosocial Adversities on Adolescent Grey Matter

Can childhood adversities have an effect on brain development, leading to mental health issues?

Areas in blue are brain regions shown to be smaller as a result of childhood adversities occurring aged 0-11

Areas in orange are brain regions shown to be larger as a result of exposure to negative life events aged 14

Authors Nicholas Walsh, Tim Dalgleish, Michael Lombardo, Valerie Dunn, Anne-Laura Van Harmelen, Maria Ban, Ian Goodyer, University of Cambridge, University of East Anglia, Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge

Published by Neuroimage: Clinical, January 2014


This study, led by Dr Nicholas Walsh, lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of East Anglia, set out to discover whether exposure to childhood adversities has an effect on brain development, which could lead to mental health issues in later life.

Previous research has focused on the effect of severe neglect and physical, sexual and emotional abuse on brain development but Walsh and his team wanted to look at the impact of exposure to more common family-focused problems on the brain development of currently healthy adolescents. These problems could include significant arguments or tension between parents, lack of affection or communication between family members, physical or emotional abuse, and events that have a practical impact on daily family life and might result in health, housing or school problems.

The researchers used brain imaging technology to scan 58 young people between the ages of 17 and 19. These adolescents were drawn from a larger study of 1,143 young people, whose parents were asked, when the young people were 14, to remember any negative life events their children had experienced between birth and age 11. The young people were also interviewed at ages 14 and 17 and asked to report any negative life experiences. Of the 58, 27 were classified as having been exposed to childhood adversities.

The study - General And Specific Effects of Early-Life Psychosocial Adversities on Adolescent Grey Matter Volume - found those who had experienced mild to moderate family difficulties between birth and 11 had developed a smaller cerebellum, an area of the brain associated with skill learning, stress regulation and sensory-motor control. The researchers suggest a smaller cerebellum may be a risk indicator of psychiatric disorders later in life, as it is consistently found to be smaller in virtually all psychiatric illnesses.

However, the researchers found young people who reported stressful experiences at 14 had increased, rather than decreased, volume in more regions of the brain when they were scanned aged 17 to 19. This finding, which the researchers said was significant and unexpected, could mean mild stress occurring later in development may "inoculate" teenagers, enabling them to cope better with exposure to difficulties in later life. There were, however, no such effects in young people who reported negative life events at 17. The team say more research is needed to determine whether the timing of negative life events has an impact on brain development.

The researchers also found those who had experienced family problems were more likely to have had a diagnosed psychiatric illness and a parent with a mental health disorder.

Implications for Practice

Exposure in childhood and early adolescence to even mild to moderate family difficulties, not just severe forms of abuse, neglect and maltreatment, may affect the developing adolescent brain. Exposure to adversities in childhood and adolescence is the biggest risk factor for later psychiatric disease. Reducing exposure to adverse social environments during early life may enhance typical brain development and reduce subsequent mental health risks in adult life.

Further reading

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