7 Ways Childhood Adversity Changes Your Brain

Oh my. Who knew all this was going on. Click here to read the full article or an excerpt below.

 

In 1995, physicians Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda launched a large-scale epidemiological study(link is external) that probed the child and adolescent histories of 17,000 subjects, comparing their childhood experiences to their later adult health records. The results were shocking: Nearly two-thirds of individuals had encountered one or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)—a term Felitti and Anda coined to encompass the chronic, unpredictable, and stress-inducing events that some children face. These included growing up with a depressed or alcoholic parent; losing a parent to divorce or other causes; or enduring chronic humiliation, emotional neglect, or sexual or physical abuse. These forms of emotional trauma went beyond the typical, everyday challenges of growing up. (For stories of those who faced childhood adversity, see these videos on Laura(link is external) and John(link is external), two patients featured in my newest book, Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal(link is external).)

The number of Adverse Childhood Experiences an individual had had predicted the amount of medical care she’d require as an adult(link is external) with surprising accuracy:

  • Individuals who had faced 4 or more categories of ACEs were twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer as individuals who hadn’t experienced childhood adversity.
  • For each ACE Score a woman had, her risk of being hospitalized with an autoimmune disease rose by 20 percent.
  • Someone with an ACE Score of 4 was 460 percent more likely to suffer fromdepression than someone with an ACE Score of 0.
  • An ACE Score greater than or equal to 6 shortened an individual’s lifespan by almost 20 years.

The ACE Study tells us that experiencing chronic, unpredictable toxic stress in childhood predisposes us to a constellation of chronic conditions in adulthood. But why? Today, in labs across the country, neuroscientists are peering into the once inscrutable brain-body connection, and breaking down, on a biochemical level, exactly how the stress we face when we’re young catches up with us when we’re adults, altering our bodies, our cells, and even our DNA. What they’ve found(link is external) may surprise you.

[In Part I of this article, we’ll talk about the science of early adversity and how it changes us. In Part II, we’ll talk about all the science-based ways in which we can reverse these changes, and get back to who it is we hope to be, so stay tuned for the good news.]

Here is a list of effects caused by trauma or ACE’s, a brief description, and how they affect us:

1. Epigenetic Shifts

2. Size and Shape of the Brain

3. Neural Pruning

4. Telomeres

5. Default Mode Network

6. Brain-Body Pathway

7. Brain Connectivity

 

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