Can abuse and love change the brain?
We help you separate scientific fact from brainy baloney
There is plenty of evidence that childhood neglect and abuse can cause changes in the brain that have long-lasting effects. Most of it comes from research on animal behaviour, but there is evidence for this in humans as well.
In recent years, it has been found that growing up in poverty has a direct effect on children’s mental abilities. One study showed that children raised in impoverished conditions have a reduced capacity for working memory – the ability to store small amounts of information for short periods of time – in comparison to better-off children. A follow-up study showed that this is probably because stress affects the way in which children’s brains develop. More recently, it has been found that childhood abuse stunts growth of the hippocampus, part of the medial temporal lobe that is crucial for memory formation.Lead image:
Patrick Hales, UCL/Wellcome Images CC BY NC ND
- Epigenetic programming by maternal behavior (2004)
- Socioeconomic status and the brain: mechanistic insights from human and animal research (2010) [PDF]
- Childhood poverty, chronic stress, and adult working memory (2009)
- American Psychological Association: Neurocognitive impacts for children of poverty and neglect