A team of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers found that stressful events experienced early in life could alter the part of a child’s brain that is responsible for learning, memory and processing stress and emotion. In doing so, the youngster’s life could be impacted long-term.
“We haven’t really understood why things that happen when you’re 2, 3, 4 years old stay with you and have a lasting impact,” says Seth Pollak, co-leader of the study and UW-Madison professor of psychology.
Published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, the researchers recruited 128 children around age 12 who had experienced neglect, physical abuse, abandonment or came from a low socioeconomic status.
After interviewing the children and their caregivers, taking images of their brains (with a strong focus on the hippocampus and amygdala, which play a role in emotion and stress processing), they found that youngsters who had experienced any of the three types of early life stress had smaller amygdalas than those who had not.
“For me, it’s an important reminder that as a society we need to attend to the types of experiences children are having,” Pollak says. “We are shaping the people these individuals will become.”