The impact of maltreatment, domestic violence

NPR News’ “All Things Considered” reports about new evidence found that maltreatment during childhood can lead to long-term changes in the brain. Maltreatment can be either physical or emotional – from mild to severe.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin asked 18-year-olds to answer questions designed to assess childhood trauma. These young adults are part of a larger study of 500-plus families that has been tracking children’s social/emotional development since 1994.

The researchers assessed 64 teenagers; some who had been mistreated, some who had not. Then, scientists used a special type of MRI to measure connections among three areas of the brain involved in processing fear:

1) The prefrontal cortex, which orchestrates thoughts and actions; and when it comes to fear, the prefrontal cortex gets input from the amygdala.

2) The amygdala is the brain’s emotion and fear center, which triggers the “fight or flight” response. Messages from the amygdala are balanced by input from the hippocampus.

3) The hippocampus helps decide whether something is truly dangerous. So, if you’re watching a scary movie, the hippocampus tells the prefrontal cortex that it’s just a movie, and you have no reason to go into the “fight or flight” mode.

Well – that is – when the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus are working correctly.

According to brain scans in adolescents who had been maltreated as children, the connection with the hippocampus is relatively weak. And in girls who had been maltreated, the connection with the amygdala is weak also.

What does that mean? These weaker connections may lead to the development of anxiety and depressive symptoms. One researcher said it’s like the young patient has lost the ability to put a filter on when to be afraid and when not to be afraid.

What does all this mean? Two extremely important things! Having a way to measure the effects of mistreatment in the brain could help doctors know whether therapy for their patient is working.

Because the brain is the “last frontier” of the body to be studied, psychiatry and psychology have been given less credence than medical fields like cardiology or diabetes. Tools, such as MRIs, lend credibility to treatment because we now have the means to show results of treatment.

Now, let’s talk about domestic violence victims who may face chronic health conditions because of their experiences. According to statistics, one in four women and one in seven men have experienced domestic violence in their lifetimes. Experts warn this ongoing abuse is a public health problem that must end.

A survey by More Magazine and the Verizon Foundation showed that 44 percent of American women have experienced some kind of domestic violence at the hands of a partner. In addition, the survey found at 81 percent of women who experienced domestic abuse had an ongoing health issue, compared to 62 percent who had not experienced abuse.

Domestic violence survivors are more likely to go to the emergency room for their health care, because they fear doctors noticing injury patterns.

The Mental Health and Recovery Services Board of Seneca, Sandusky and Wyandot Counties is committed to sharing information and resources for better mental health and the prevention of substance abuse. It has a website,, and a link to our Facebook page. If you would like more information, please call the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board of Seneca, Sandusky and Wyandot Counties at (419) 448-0640 between the hours of 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. The board’s hotline is available 24/7 at (800) 826-1306.

Nancy Cochran,

executive director