Childhood maltreatment continues to impact mental, physical health in adulthood: Study | Health

Childhood maltreatment can have a long-term impact on an individual’s likelihood of poor physical health and traumatic events, according to a new study. Individuals who have experienced childhood maltreatment, such as emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, or emotional and physical neglect, are more likely to develop mental illness later in life, but it is unclear why this risk persists decades after the maltreatment occurred.

Individuals who have experienced childhood maltreatment, such as emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, or emotional and physical neglect, are more likely to develop mental illness later in life. (Freepik)

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists from the University of Cambridge and Leiden University discovered that childhood maltreatment continues to affect adult brains because these experiences increase the likelihood of obesity, inflammation, and traumatic events, all of which are risk factors for poor health and wellbeing, affecting brain structure and thus brain health.

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The researchers examined MRI brain scans from approximately 21,000 adult participants aged 40 to 70 years in UK Biobank, as well as information on body mass index (an indicator of metabolic health), CRP (a blood marker of inflammation) and experiences of childhood maltreatment and adult trauma.

Sofia Orellana, a PhD student at the Department of Psychiatry and Darwin College, University of Cambridge, said: “We’ve known for some time that people who experience abuse or neglect as a child can continue to experience mental health problems long into adulthood and that their experiences can also cause long term problems for the brain, the immune system and the metabolic system, which ultimately controls the health of your heart or your propensity to diabetes for instance. What hasn’t been clear is how all these effects interact or reinforce each other.”

Using a type of statistical modelling that allowed them to determine how these interactions work, the researchers confirmed that experiencing childhood maltreatment made individuals more likely to have an increased body mass index (or obesity) and experience greater rates of trauma in adulthood. Individuals with a history of maltreatment tended to show signs of dysfunction in their immune systems, and the researchers showed that this dysfunction is the product of obesity and repeated exposure to traumatic events.

Next, the researchers expanded their models to include MRI measures of the adult’s brains and were able to show that widespread increases and decreases in brain thickness and volume associated with greater body mass index, inflammation and trauma were attributable to childhood maltreatment having made these factors more likely in the first place. These changes in brain structure likely mean that some form of physical damage is occurring to brain cells, affecting how they work and function.

Although there is more to do to understand how these effects operate at a cellular level in the brain, the researchers believe that their findings advance our understanding of how adverse events in childhood can contribute to life-long increased risk of brain and mind health disorders.

Professor Ed Bullmore from the Department of Psychiatry and an Honorary Fellow at Downing College, Cambridge, 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 most need help, and hopefully aid them in breaking this chain of ill health.” (ANI)

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