Experiencing abuse, neglect as child linked to lifelong ill-health: Study

Brain scans reveal structural changes linked to childhood abuse and neglect


Experiencing abuse or neglect as a child has been linked to lifelong ill-health by making them more vulnerable to experiencing obesity, inflammation and trauma, according to a new research.

Experiencing abusive behaviour or emotional and physical neglect was found to make children more likely to become obese and experience more trauma as adults, both of which then become the cause for dysfunction in the immune system, such as inflammation.

By studying brain scans of adults, researchers showed that there were widespread changes in the brain structure such as increased thickness and reduced volume, associated with obesity, inflammation and repeated trauma stemming from childhood ill-treatment.

These structural changes, therefore suggested physical damage inflicted on the brain cells that affected their functioning, the researchers at the University of Cambridge, UK, said.

They said that while it was known that children experiencing abuse are more likely to develop mental illness throughout their lives, it was not yet well understood why this risk persists many decades after the ill-treatment first happened.

The study findings advance our understanding of how adverse childhood events can contribute to life-long increased risk of brain and mental health disorders, the team said.

"Now that we have a better understanding of why childhood maltreatment has long-term effects, we can potentially look for biomarkers - biological red flags - that indicate whether an individual is at increased risk of continuing problems.

"This could help us target early on those who need most help, and hopefully aid them in breaking this chain of ill health," said Edward Bullmore, professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, and author of the study published in the journal 'Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences'.

For the study, the researchers examined magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans of more than 21,000 adults aged 40-70 years. They analysed this data from the UK Biobank along with their body mass index (BMI), C-reactive protein levels (that reveal signs of inflammation) and their experiences of childhood ill-treatment and adult trauma. 

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