Childhood Trauma Study Uncovers Brain Rewiring Using fMRI Data
A University of Essex study of childhood trauma, led by the Department of Psychology’s Dr Megan Klabunde, uncovered a disruption in neural networks involved in self-focus and problem-solving and how it affects development and rewires vital pathways.
This means children under 18 who experienced abuse will likely struggle with emotions, empathy and understanding their bodies. Difﬁculties in school caused by memory, hard mental tasks and decision making may also emerge.
Dr Klabunde’s research used AI to re-examine hundreds of brain scans and identify patterns. It is hoped the research will help hone new treatments for children who have endured mistreatment. This could mean therapists focus on techniques that rewire these centers and rebuild their sense of self.
Dr Klabunde said, “Currently, science-based treatments for childhood trauma primarily focus on addressing the fearful thoughts and avoidance of trauma triggers. This is a very important part of trauma treatment. However, our study has revealed that we are only treating one part of the problem. Even when a child who has experienced trauma is not thinking about their traumatic experiences, their brains are struggling to process their sensations within their bodies. This inﬂuences how one thinks and feels about one’s ‘internal world’ and this also inﬂuences one’s ability to empathize and form relationships.”
Dr Klabunde reviewed 14 studies involving more than 580 children for the research published in Biological Psychiatry Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.
The paper re-examined functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, a procedure highlights blood ﬂow in different centers, showing neurological activity.
The study discovered a marked difference in traumatized children’s default mode (DMN) and central executive networks (CEN) – two large scale brain systems. The DMN and the posterior insula are involved in how people sense their body, the sense of self and their internal reﬂections.
New studies are ﬁnding the DMN plays an important role in most mental health problems - and may be inﬂuenced by experiencing childhood trauma. The CEN is also more active than in healthy children, which means that children with trauma histories tend to ruminate and relive terrible experiences when triggered.
Dr Klabunde hopes this study will be a springboard to ﬁnd out more about how trauma affects developing minds.
She said, “Our brain ﬁndings indicate that childhood trauma treatments appear to be missing an important piece of the puzzle. In addition to preventing avoidance of scary situations and addressing one’s thoughts, trauma therapies in children should also address how trauma’s impacts on one’s body, sense of self, emotional/empathetic processing, and relationships. This is important to do so since untreated symptoms will likely contribute to other health and mental health problems throughout the lifespan.”