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Study Suggests Sexual and Emotional Abuse Leave Behind Specific Scars on the Brain

Update Date: Jun 05, 2013 11:38 AM EDT

Several studies have looked into the effects of childhood abuse, which ranges from physical torment to emotional neglect. Studies have tied abuse to antisocial personalities and deviant behaviors in adulthood. Now, according to a new study, two specific types of abuse appear to leave distinctive marks in the brains of the victims. The researchers discovered that sexual and emotional abuse that occurred during childhood scarred woman's brains in different areas.

The researchers recruited 51 women from Atlanta, GA who were already a part of a larger study that wanted to identify the effects of childhood trauma. Of the 51 women, 28 of them were severely mistreated, ranging from neglect and emotional abuse to physical and sexual abuse, when they were children. 23 of the women were not abused at all. The participants were between 18 and 45-years-old, with an average age of 27. The researchers imaged the brains of all participants and distributed a standard questionnaire that assessed childhood trauma.

"If abuse was of a sexual type, we saw changes in the somatosensory cortex, the area that processes input from the body to create sensations and perceptions," the associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, Jens Pruessner, said according to Times. "Women we were sexually abused had thinning in the area where the genitalia were located."

The researchers know that cortical thickness is associated with healthy brain development. For people who were sexually abused, the researchers found that their somatosensory cortex, which is responsible for linking sensations to different body parts, was affected when it was tied to sexual pleasures. For emotional abuse, the researchers discovered a different type of scar that was left behind. Emotional abuse affected the regions of the brain that have been tied to depression, moodiness and dulled or dramatized emotional responsiveness.

Although these findings suggest that there are structural changes dues to childhood trauma, the study was limited because the researchers did not follow the victims of abuse from childhood into adulthood. The changes in brain structures could have occurred at a different stage in the victim's life and not necessarily directly from the initial instances of abuse. The study also used self-reports, which could be subjected to errors.

The study was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry

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