Adults with a history of childhood trauma tend to respond less accurately and more impulsively in situations that require quick thinking, such as emergencies or driving, according to a new study led by a neurologist at the University of Michigan Medical School.
The new findings add to a growing body of evidence showing the damaging long-term effects of traumatic childhood experiences.
For the study, researchers analyzed data from the Heinz C. Prechter Longitudinal Study of Bipolar Disorder based at the U-M Depression Center. They wanted to determine whether patients with bipolar disorder had more impulsive and inaccurate responses on a quick task than those without the disorder. Much to their surprise, they found no differences between the two groups.
Instead, when they looked closer, they found a common thread running through nearly every participant with more impulsive responses: childhood trauma.
Among the more than 320 participants in the study, 134 reported a history of childhood trauma. This included physical abuse or neglect, emotional abuse or neglect, and sexual abuse. It did not include one-time traumatic events. None of the participants were drug abusers, and the participants without bipolar disorder did not have other mental health conditions.
Participants with bipolar disorder and a history of trauma performed significantly worse on the quick-acting task, than those with bipolar alone. Those without bipolar disorder who had a history of trauma performed just as poorly.
The task, called the “Go/No-Go” test, measures how well a person can stop himself or herself from reacting incorrectly to rapid prompts that sometimes require a “go” response and sometime require a person to hold back the impulse to respond (“no-go”).
“Past research has looked at mental health conditions, including bipolar disorder, and even at memory function in people with childhood trauma, but few have looked at inhibitory control, or what some people call impulse control,” said lead author David Marshall, Ph.D.
“Having the data from the Prechter research effort allowed us to see that a history of childhood trauma can impact the development of this key aspect of executive functioning that we need more of as we become adults, where we are required to engage in self-monitoring and goal-directed behavior.”
Marshall got the idea for the study after discovering that a good portion of the bipolar participants discussed problematic childhoods in the required study questionnaires.
“What is intriguing about this research is that childhood trauma had an effect on impulse control that was in both groups, meaning that it is independent of bipolar illness and more strongly related to adverse childhood experiences,” Marshall said.
“This substantially changes the way we think of how trauma increases risk for illnesses. There may be brain changes after trauma that act as a risk marker for development of later illnesses, including bipolar disorder. These processes are much more fluid than we previously thought.”
The findings highlight the importance of early detection and continuous treatment for people diagnosed with bipolar disorder, as well as paying attention to the effects of childhood trauma.
“By finding early those who may be at risk of long-term mental health effects from childhood abuse and neglect, we may be able to guide them to treatments that can mitigate these effects,” Marshall said.
While treatment recommendations vary, cognitive behavioral therapy can help even those whose childhood issues haven’t been addressed formally for years, Marshall said. The self-control and self-talk that are key to CBT can help people develop problem-solving techniques to assist their thinking and analytic abilities.
The findings are published in the journal Psychiatry Research.