Childhood Abuse Alters Physiology, Increases Depression Risk Emerging research suggests stress and trauma during childhood can cause lasting brain changes leading to adult psychosocial disorders.

More specifically, physical, sexual or emotional abuse in childhood appears to alter an individual’s response to stress, placing the person at risk for severe depression.

Kate Harkness, Ph.D., who has extensively studied the role of stress and trauma, believes the trauma in youth alters a person’s neuroendocrine response to stress. She discovered adolescents with a history of maltreatment and a mild level of depression were found to release much more of the stress hormone cortisol than is normal.

The excess hormone release occurred in response to normal psychological stressors such as giving a speech or solving a difficult arithmetic test.

“This kind of reaction is a problem because cortisol kills cells in areas of the brain that control memory and emotion regulation,” said Harkness. “Over time, cortisol levels can build up and increase a person’s risk for more severe endocrine impairment and more severe depression.”

Researchers believe the consequences can be found among youth with a history of maltreatment and presenting severe depression. Among these individuals, investigators discovered endocrine systems that did not respond to stress in a normal manner.

These results are important because they show that environmental stress in childhood changes the function of the brain in ways that may cause and/or maintain severe psychiatric disorders such as depression.

Harkness, an associate professor of psychology at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, recently presented her findings at the International Society for Affective Disorders Conference in Toronto.

Source: Queen’s University