Young adults who have been abused or neglected have less gray matter in certain areas of the brain than those who have not experienced maltreatment, according to a new study by the Yale School of Medicine.
Overall, 42 teen participants who had reported past abuse or neglect were shown to have a reduced amount of gray matter — the tissue containing brain cells — although they had not been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder.
“Here we have teenagers who may not have a diagnosable illness but still have physical evidence of maltreatment,” said Hilary Blumberg, associate professor in the departments of psychiatry and diagnostic radiology and in the Yale Child Study Center, who is senior author of the study.
“This could help to explain their trouble with school performance or increase their vulnerability to depression and behavioral difficulties.”
The brain regions affected by mistreatment may differ according to variety of factors: gender, exposure to abuse or neglect, and whether the neglect was physical or emotional.
A lack of gray matter was observed in prefrontal areas, regardless of whether the participant had been physically abused or emotionally neglected. However, in other parts of the brain, the reductions were based on the type of maltreatment that had been experienced. For example, emotional neglect was linked to a gray matter decrease in areas of the brain that regulate emotions.
The researchers also pinpointed gender differences as well. In males, the gray matter reduction tended to be focused in areas of the brain linked to impulse control or substance abuse. In females, the reduction seemed to be in areas of the brain associated with depression.
Blumberg emphasized that these deficits found in adolescents are probably not permanent.
“We have found that the brain, particularly in adolescents, shows a great deal of plasticity,” she said. “It is critical to find ways to prevent maltreatment and to help the youths who have been exposed.”
The study is published in the December issue of the Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine.
Source: Yale University