We easily understand how beating a child may damage the developing brain, but what about the all-too-common psychological abuse of children? Because the abuse was not physical, these children may be told, as adults, that they should just “get over it.”
But as developmental neuropsychiatrist Martin H. Teicher reveals, scientists are discovering some startling connections between abuse of all kinds and both permanent debilitating changes in the brain and psychiatric problems ranging from panic attacks to post-traumatic stress disorder. In these surprising physical consequences of psychological trauma, Teicher sees not only a wake-up call for our society but hope for new treatments.
A Constellation of Abnormalities
Our research (and that of other scientists) delineates a constellation of brain abnormalities associated with childhood abuse. There are four major components:
Limbic irritability, manifested by markedly increased prevalence of symptoms suggestive of temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) and by an increased incidence of clinically signiﬁcant EEG (brain wave) abnormalities.
Deﬁcient development and differentiation of the left hemisphere, manifested throughout the cerebral cortex and the hippocampus, which is involved in memory retrieval.
Deﬁcient left-right hemisphere integration, indicated by marked shifts in hemispheric activity during memory recall and by underdevelopment of the middle portions of the corpus callosum, the primary pathway connecting the two hemispheres.
Abnormal activity in the cerebellar vermis (the middle strip between the two hemispheres of the brain), which appears to play an important role in emotional and attentional balance and regulates electrical activity within the limbic system.
Let us look brieﬂy at the main evidence for each of these abnormalities.