Traumatic stress changes brains of boys, girls differently, study finds

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Traumatic stress affects the brains of adolescent boys and girls differently, according to a new brain-scanning study from the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Among youth with , the study found structural differences between the sexes in one part of the insula, a brain region that detects cues from the body and processes emotions and empathy. The insula helps to integrate one's feelings, actions and several other brain functions.

The findings will be published online Nov. 11 in Depression and Anxiety. The study is the first to show differences between male and female PTSD patients in a part of the insula involved in emotion and empathy.

"The insula appears to play a key role in the development of PTSD," said the study's senior author, Victor Carrion, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford. "The difference we saw between the brains of boys and who have experienced psychological trauma is important because it may help explain differences in trauma symptoms between sexes."

Smaller insula in traumatized girls

Among young people who are exposed to , some develop PTSD while others do not. People with PTSD may experience flashbacks of traumatic events; may avoid places, people and things that remind them of the trauma; and may suffer a variety of other problems, including social withdrawal and difficulty sleeping or concentrating. Prior research has shown that girls who experienced trauma are more likely to develop PTSD than boys who experience trauma, but scientists have been unable to determine why.

The research team conducted MRI scans of the brains of 59 study participants ages 9-17. Thirty of them—14 girls and 16 boys—had trauma symptoms, and 29 others—the control group of 15 girls and 14 boys—did not. The traumatized and nontraumatized participants had similar ages and IQs. Of the traumatized participants, five had experienced one episode of trauma, while the remaining 25 had experienced two or more episodes or had been exposed to chronic trauma.

The researchers saw no differences in brain structure between boys and girls in the control group. However, among the traumatized boys and girls, they saw differences in a portion of the insula called the anterior circular sulcus. This brain region had larger volume and surface area in traumatized boys than in boys in the control group. In addition, the region's volume and surface area were smaller in girls with trauma than among girls in the .

Findings could help clinicians

"It is important that people who work with traumatized youth consider the ," said Megan Klabunde, PhD, the study's lead author and an instructor of psychiatry and . "Our findings suggest it is possible that boys and girls could exhibit different and that they might benefit from different approaches to treatment."

The insula normally changes during childhood and adolescence, with smaller insula volume typically seen as children and teenagers grow older. Thus, the findings imply that traumatic stress could contribute to accelerated cortical aging of the insula in girls who develop PTSD, Klabunde said.

"There are some studies suggesting that high levels of stress could contribute to early puberty in girls," she said.

The researchers also noted that their work may help scientists understand how experiencing trauma could play into differences between the sexes in regulating emotions. "By better understanding sex in a region of the brain involved in emotion processing, clinicians and scientists may be able to develop sex-specific and emotion dysregulation treatments," the authors write in the study.

To better understand the findings, the researchers say what's needed next are longitudinal studies following traumatized young people of both sexes over time. They also say studies that further explore how PTSD might manifest itself differently in and girls, as well as tests of whether sex-specific treatments are beneficial, are needed.

The work is an example of Stanford Medicine's focus on precision health, the goal of which is to anticipate and prevent disease in the healthy and precisely diagnose and treat disease in the ill.

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Journal information: Depression and Anxiety

Citation: Traumatic stress changes brains of boys, girls differently, study finds (2016, November 11) retrieved 17 June 2019 from
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Nov 11, 2016
I wonder how youth dealt with traumatic stress during the pleistocene when perhaps 50% of them did not survive to adulthood. Did humans somehow lose all that conditioning with the advent of academic liberalism and the struggle for grant money and relevance? That too is governed by group selection and evolutionary forces.

Our elections made clear something new; a revolution's coming and it does not mean more free stuff.

Nov 12, 2016
Traumatic stress is obviously not the only factor depriving people of any trace of empathy, . . or Humanity.

Nov 13, 2016
Who do you think you're fooling?

"Manipulation is the key to the psychopath's conquests. Initially, the psychopath will feign false emotions to create empathy, and many of them study the tricks that can be employed by the empathy technique. Psychopaths are often able to incite pity from people because they seem like "lost souls" as Guggenbuhl-Craig writes. So the pity factor is one reason why victims often fall for these "poor" people."

Nov 13, 2016
Otto. This article is about research into support for children and adolescents who have been through traumatic situations, such as car crashes with fatalities, and you're here talking about "no more free stuff" for them, and how psychopaths paint themselves as victims. My bet is that getting rid of "free stuff" for such kids is not a priority for the president elect, and in fact in painting him that way, you're getting way off into your own space here. Time to take a deep breath and check yourself, my friend.

Nov 14, 2016
Otto. This article is about research into support for children and adolescents who have been through traumatic situations, such as car crashes with fatalities
Luke. Humans evolved in a world where traumatic situations were the norm. They were expected. They saw half their siblings die before they reached maturity. They learned to hunt and kill and fight at a very early age in order to secure food and to defend themselves and their right to reproduce.

There was no adolescence in the pleistocene. Adulthood began at puberty, and people usually died by their mid-twenties from disease, accident, violence, predation, or while birthing children.

So the children back then grew up in this atmosphere and witnessed all this violence and hardship and yet were on the whole just as happy, productive, and sane as one could expect children to be.

And they didn't have concepts like PTSD and trauma to help them cope or to fix what wasn't broken in the first place.

Nov 14, 2016
My bet is that getting rid of "free stuff" for such kids is not a priority for the president elect
My bet is that one of the reasons for the president elect is that people are tired of nonsense concepts invented by idle soft science types whose disciplines are being threatened by the progress of legitimate science.

Pleistoceners had no need for safe zones and gender neutrality and microaggression etc.
Time to take a deep breath and check yourself, my friend
ok zippers up shoes are tied I'm good.

Nov 14, 2016
Just watched a video of Sam Harris the philo and very excellent anti religionist, who was obviously enlisted to defame the then-candidate Trump, no doubt by dept heads and university officers eager to find something of value for their philosophers to do.

Not an easy task I would assume.

But it's really sad - Harris was reduced to criticizing trumps lack of big words in his speeches, and his confusion of Kurds for kuds force, and his apparent lack of education even though he graduated from Wharton.

So Harris was pressed into political service like so many fellow academies because most of what they do is politics anyways isn't it?

Sociopolitics is an applied science, meaning that its purpose is to give people opinions, not to find out what they are.

Nov 15, 2016
luke, "otto" is a person hiding behind a phony name and a firewall cut-out, so nobody knows who he/she is. Yeah, that means his attacks are just displays of poor character.

But it is the lack of Humanity, the lack of anything resembling empathy, the pit of black nastiness he shows which is disturbing. Do not let him fixate on you.

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