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Childhood maltreatment can continue to affect adult brains, Cambridge and Leiden researchers find

Childhood maltreatment can affect an individual’s risk of poor physical health and traumatic experiences many years later, a new study has found.

Individuals who experienced maltreatment when young – such as emotional, physical and sexual abuse, or emotional and physical neglect – are more likely to develop mental illness throughout their entire life. But it is not well understood why the risk persists many decades later.

Childhood maltreatment has an impact on adult brains, researchers have shown
Childhood maltreatment has an impact on adult brains, researchers have shown

Scientists from the University of Cambridge and Leiden University examined MRI brain scans from approximately 21,000 adult participants aged 40 to 70 years in UK Biobank, as well as information on body mass index (an indicator of metabolic health), CRP (a blood marker of inflammation) and experiences of childhood maltreatment and adult trauma.

They found adult brains continue to be affected by childhood maltreatment in adulthood because these experiences make individuals more likely to experience obesity, inflammation and traumatic events, all of which are risk factors for poor health and wellbeing, which in turn also affect brain structure and therefore brain health.

Sofia Orellana, a PhD student at the Department of Psychiatry and Darwin College at the University of Cambridge, said: “We’ve known for some time that people who experience abuse or neglect as a child can continue to experience mental health problems long into adulthood and that their experiences can also cause long-term problems for the brain, the immune system and the metabolic system, which ultimately controls the health of your heart or your propensity to diabetes for instance. What hasn’t been clear is how all these effects interact or reinforce each other.”

They used statistical modelling to determine how the interactions work, and found that experiencing childhood maltreatment made individuals more likely to have an increased body mass index (or obesity) and experience greater rates of trauma in adulthood. They also had signs of dysfunction in their immune systems and the researchers showed that this dysfunction is the product of obesity and repeated exposure to traumatic events.

Prof Ed Bullmore, from the Department of Psychiatry and an honorary fellow at Downing College, Cambridge, said: “Now that we have a better understanding of why childhood maltreatment has long term effects, we can potentially look for biomarkers – biological red flags – that indicate whether an individual is at increased risk of continuing problems. This could help us target early on those who most need help, and hopefully aid them in breaking this chain of ill health.”

The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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