A new study sheds light on the mystery of why some children are more vulnerable to the effects of maltreatment — a major risk factor for psychiatric complications including anxiety, depression, addiction and suicide — and others seem more resilient.
Researchers at McLean Hospital of Harvard Medical School found that while many young adults with a history of child abuse exhibit brain network abnormalities, those who do not go on to develop psychiatric symptoms actually show more alterations.
The findings, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, suggest these additional changes may help compensate for the effects of maltreatment.
“These are important findings as they provide a radically new perspective on resilience,” said lead author Kyoko Ohashi, PhD. “Maltreated individuals without psychiatric symptoms are not unaffected or immune. Rather, they have additional brain changes that enable them to effectively compensate.”
For the study, the research team created models of brain networks in 342 young adults — over half of whom had experienced maltreatment as a child — by tracing pathways of connections throughout the brain.
“We found that susceptible and resilient emerging adults with childhood maltreatment had the same abnormalities in brain network organization. Interestingly, resilient individuals had additional abnormalities in specific brain regions that reduced their susceptibility to different types of psychiatric symptoms, and this information was able to reliably predict whether individuals were not maltreated or were susceptible or resilient,” said Ohashi.
These additional abnormalities in resilient adults appeared to decrease the efficiency of information transfer in brain regions likely altered by maltreatment and that are involved in psychiatric symptoms, like pain, stress, depression and anxiety.
“This study highlights that resilience is an active process that is associated with its own alterations in brain function over and above the negative effects of stress,” said John Krystal, M.D., editor of Biological Psychiatry.
“The observation that the illness-related network changes are present in the resilient individuals may help to explain why some individuals have periods of both vulnerability and resilience after traumatic stress exposure.”
“We wonder whether these additional changes in connectivity are the causes, consequences, or both causes and consequences of resilience.”