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Emotional abuse negatively affects our brains14 December 2013, by Alexandra Gowling
Researchers at Leiden University have discovered that emotional child abuse has damaging effects of cognition and the structure and functioning of the brain.
PhD student Anne-Laura van Harmelen is arguing in her PhD defence that children who are often jeered at, threatened, ignored or isolated by their parents react differently to stress later in life.
Their memories of youth are affected and they often have a more negative image of themselves, which can arouse or strengthen negative thoughts and feelings in new situations.
"This makes them more susceptible to developing depressions or anxieties," Van Harmelen said.
Verbal child abuse
Emotional child abuse is the most common form of child abuse, according to Van Harmelen. Over the last few years it has become increasingly clear that this abuse has serious implications in the recipients’ adulthood.
"The precise effects of emotional child abuse on cognition and the brain have long been unknown. For a long time the assumption was that they were negligible," she said.
Effects on the brain
Her research shows a different story, however.
Medical imaging studies showed that the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that is important for the functioning of cognition and behaviour, is smaller in people who have been emotionally abused.
This cortex also responds differently when people remember things and reacts differently to stress.
To test this, Van Harmelen measured brain activity in test subjects while they were shown photos of positive, negative and neutral facial expressions.
Van Harmelen was able to establish that the amygdala (the area of the brain that signals the feeling of threat) of people who had been emotionally abused was more active. These results suggest that emotionally abused people found all the faces threatening, regardless of their expression.
Mitigating the harm
These results are an important step towards gaining a better understanding of the negative effects of emotional abuse in childhood.
"It is extremely important that we increase our knowledge and raise more awareness of the negative effects of emotional childhood abuse," said Van Harmelen. "My research has underlined the importance of being able to identify emotional childhood abuse. This will hopefully lead to more intervention so as to reduce the number of cases of abuse and its effects."
Van Harmelen is continuing her research at the University of Cambridge in the UK, examining whether positive factors, such as close friendships, can reduce the negative effects of emotional child abuse.
Source: Leiden University