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Early Exposure to Stress Can Have Permanent Effects on the Brain

Update Date: Jun 27, 2014 04:04 PM EDT

A good amount of stress can be beneficial for growing and learning. Too much stress, however, can overwhelm people and increase their risks of mental health conditions. In a new study, researchers examined the effects of early childhood exposure to high levels of stress on the brain and found that chronic stress, such as poverty, neglect and physical abuse, had a negative and permanent impact on the brain.

"We haven't really understood why things that happen when you're 2, 3, 4 years old stay with you and have a lasting impact," said Seth Pollak, co-leader of the study and UW-Madison professor of psychology reported by Medical Xpress. "Given how costly these early stressful experiences are for society ... unless we understand what part of the brain is affected, we won't be able to tailor something to do about it."

For this study, the researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison recruited 128 12-year-old children. The children had all suffered from physical abuse or neglect and were from low-income households. The researchers interviewed the children and their caretakers, focusing on stressors and behavioral issues. The team also took images of the hippocampus and amygdala, which are responsible for emotion and stress processing. The answers and images were compared to children of the same age that were from middle-class families.

The researchers found that children who suffered from stressors early on in life had a smaller amygdala in comparison to children who did not experience the same levels of stress. The neglected children also had a smaller hippocampus. Small hippocampal and amygdala volumes have been linked to behavioral problems.

"For me, it's an important reminder that as a society we need to attend to the types of experiences children are having," Pollak said. "We are shaping the people these individuals will become."

The study was published in the journal, Biological Psychiatry.

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