Maltreated children show same pattern of brain activity as combat soldiers

December 5, 2011, University College London

Children exposed to family violence show the same pattern of activity in their brains as soldiers exposed to combat, new research has shown.

In the first functional MRI brain scan study to investigate the impact of physical abuse and on , scientists at UCL in collaboration with the Anna Freud Centre, found that exposure to was associated with increased in two specific (the anterior insula and the amygdala) when children viewed pictures of .

Previous fMRI studies that scanned the brains of soldiers exposed to violent combat situations have shown the same pattern of heightened activation in these two areas of the brain, which are associated with threat detection. The authors suggest that both maltreated children and soldiers may have adapted to be 'hyper-aware' of danger in their environment.

However, the anterior insula and amygdala are also areas of the brain implicated in . Neural adaptation in these regions may help explain why children exposed to family violence are at greater risk of developing anxiety problems later in life.

Dr Eamon McCrory, lead author from the UCL Division of Psychology and Language Sciences and the Anna Freud Centre, said: "We are only now beginning to understand how child abuse influences functioning of the brain's emotional systems. This research is important because it provides our first clues as to how regions in the child's brain may adapt to early experiences of abuse in the home".

Dr McCrory added: "All the children studied were healthy and none were suffering from a . What we have shown is that exposure to family violence is associated with altered brain functioning in the absence of and that these alterations may represent an underlying neural risk factor. We suggest these changes may be adaptive for the child in the short term but may increase longer term risk".

In the study, which is published in the journal Current Biology, 43 children had their brains scanned using an fMRI scanner. 20 children who had been exposed to documented violence at home were compared with 23 matched peers who had not experienced family violence. The average age of the maltreated children was 12 years old and they had all been referred to local social services in London.

When the children were in the scanner they were presented with pictures of male and female faces showing sad, calm or angry expressions. The children had only to decide if the face was male or female – processing the emotion on the face was incidental. As described, the children who had been exposed to violence at home showed increased brain activity in the anterior insula and amygdala in response to the angry faces.

Professor Peter Fonagy, Chief Executive of the Anna Freud Centre and professor of psychology at UCL, said: "Dr McCrory's groundbreaking research has undoubtedly taken us an important step closer to understanding the devastation which exposing children to violence can leave in its wake. His exciting findings confirm the traumatic effects these experiences have on development.

Professor Fonagy added: "The report should energize clinicians and social workers to double their efforts to safeguard children from violence. By helping us understand the consequences of maltreatment the findings also offer fresh inspiration for the development of effective treatment strategies to protect children from the consequences of maltreatment."

Dr McCrory said: "Even though we know that maltreatment represents one of the most potent environmental risk factors associated with anxiety and depression, relatively little is known how such adversity 'gets under the skin' and increases a child's later vulnerability."

"The next step for us is to try and understand how stable these changes are. Not every child exposed to family violence will go on to develop a mental health problem; many bounce back and lead successful lives. We want to know much more about those mechanisms that help some children become resilient."

Explore further: 1 in 4 children exposed to some form of family violence

More information: "Heightened neural reactivity to threat in child victims of family violence" is published online today in Current Biology.

Related Stories

1 in 4 children exposed to some form of family violence

October 17, 2011
More than 1 in 4 children have been exposed to physical violence between their parents at some time, 1 in 9 of them during the past year, according to new research from the University of New Hampshire Crimes against Children ...

Recommended for you

People with prosthetic arms less affected by common illusion

January 22, 2018
People with prosthetic arms or hands do not experience the "size-weight illusion" as strongly as other people, new research shows.

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.

Inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

January 18, 2018
When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter – more than we think.

College branding makes beer more salient to underage students

January 18, 2018
In recent years, major beer companies have tried to capitalize on the salience of students' university affiliations, unveiling marketing campaigns and products—such as "fan cans," store displays, and billboard ads—that ...

Modulating molecules: Study shows oxytocin helps the brain to modulate social signals

January 17, 2018
Between sights, sounds, smells and other senses, the brain is flooded with stimuli on a moment-to-moment basis. How can it sort through the flood of information to decide what is important and what can be relegated to the ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (4) Dec 05, 2011
The terrible consequence of violent child abuse is its self-perpetuating nature. When these victims of violent parents become parents themselves, they often repeat the behavior with their children, justifying it with; "It was good enough for me, and I didn't turn out so bad." The extent of this abuse is far more widespread than anyone wants to hear. Behind the facades of so many homes around the world, children are terrorized by their own parents on a daily basis, and with a faltering economy, their fate gets even worse.
5 / 5 (4) Dec 05, 2011
I was an abused child. I am now 64yo and still have problems w/authority figures and societal rules. Hard to hold a job when you can't deal with anger and bosses who never acknowledge your worth to the company; but rather, always seem to want 20% more than you can deliver. The scars from parental abuse run deep. My soul is still scarred from my youth, and I have never been married for long and never dared have children, for fear I would become an abuser like my parents. My younger sister became way worse than our mother. Abusing a child leaves LIFETIME harm which doesn't always get better with time. I still have trouble trusting most people; esp. women. Any relationship I have is fraught with paranoid thoughts of 'when will it go bad and I get dumped?'... Lifetime! The total lack of trust of parental units is profound.
5 / 5 (1) Dec 05, 2011
Argiod: You're a strong person to have weathered that kind of misery for as long as you have. You're also a testament to our survival mechanism that finds reason and beauty in life despite its horrors.
3 / 5 (4) Dec 05, 2011
In the early days in Israel after they won independence, Israelis worked and lived in Kibbutzim (plural form), which was more or less Communistic in form. Single women lived together in separate buildings from single men, and married couples had their own apartments. But ALL of them worked on the Kibbutz without exception. As a result of the required rule of work, all babies were taken from the parents and raised by surrogates in separate buildings away from the parents of each baby. The parents were only able to see their child on the weekends when they had a day off from work. In that kind of environment, growing up under those conditions and very seldom being held in someone's arms, those children grew up to be some of the best fighters in the Israeli Army and were emotionless and even cruel. They were never cuddled as babies and shown love by the surrogate mothers. And it was apparent in their demeanor and behavior as adults.
not rated yet Dec 06, 2011
Yes, I think this good research.Because it shows early links between behavior of the parents and effects on the children. I have the feeling it could be extended to non physical violence. My parents did not beat or fight physically, but was a chilly, hostile arrangement, in which they hated each other and did pull in their children. Making the children the last silly reason to keep up appearances and a tool in the fight. Off course I did not consciously notice this, but a bit later in life, if you get a psychosis and turn out to be schizophrene, you start a bit thinking, what possibly could be that stressing factor in your life.
I'm quite happy with my life, ok, I have a big psychological handicap. And like Argiod I can not really function in a work situation. There is a cause, but no blame.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.