How Childhood Abuse Changes the Brain

Depressed girl sitting at the street

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Studies have demonstrated over and over that childhood abuse and neglect results in permanent changes to the developing human brain. These changes in brain structure appear to be significant enough to potentially cause psychological and emotional problems in adulthood, such as psychological disorders and/or substance abuse.

If you are a victim of child abuse or know someone who might be, call or text the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 to speak with a professional crisis counselor.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

How Abuse Alters Brain Structure

Dr. Martin Teicher and his colleagues at McLean Hospital, Harvard Medical School and Northeastern University, used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology to identify measured changes in brain structure among young adults who had experienced childhood abuse or neglect.

There were clear differences in nine brain regions between those who had suffered childhood trauma and those who had not. The most obvious changes were in the brain regions that help balance emotions and impulses, as well as self-centered thinking.

The results indicate that people who have been through childhood abuse or neglect have a higher risk of substance abuse if they go down that path because they have a harder time controlling their urges and making rational decisions due to actual physical changes in their brain development.

When people experienced three or more types of abuse (sexual, physical, verbal, neglect), 53% suffered from major depression at some point in their lives. 40% had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Brain Structure Changes

There are many negative effects of childhood abuse and neglect on how the brain develops. Some of these potential effects are:

  • Decreased size of the corpus callosum; the primary function of the corpus callosum is to integrate cortical functioning—motor, sensory, and cognitive performances—between the hemispheres
  • Decreased size of the hippocampus, which is important in learning and memory
  • Dysfunction at different levels of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis
  • Less volume of the prefrontal cortex, which affects behavior, balancing emotions and perception
  • Overactivity in the amygdala, which is responsible for processing emotions and determining reactions to potentially stressful or dangerous situations
  • Reduced size of the cerebellum, which can affect motor skills and coordination

Behavior, Emotions, and Social Function

Because childhood abuse, neglect, and trauma change brain structure and chemical function, maltreatment can also affect the way children behave, regulate emotion and function socially. These potential effects include:

  • Being constantly on alert and unable to relax, no matter the situation
  • Feeling fearful most or all of the time
  • Finding social situations more challenging
  • Learning deficits
  • Not hitting developmental milestones in a timely fashion
  • A tendency to develop depression or an anxiety disorder
  • A weakened ability to process positive feedback

Other Factors of Maltreatment

How childhood abuse or neglect affects an adult depends also on how often the abuse occurred; what age the child was during the abuse; who the abuser was; whether or not the child had a dependable, loving adult in her life as well; how long the abuse lasted; if there were any interventions in the abuse; the kind and severity of the abuse; and other individual factors.

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  1. Teicher MH, Anderson CM, et al. Childhood maltreatment: altered network centrality of cingulate, precuneus, temporal pole and insula. Biol Psychiatry. 2014;76(4):297-305.

  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Child Welfare Information Gateway. Understanding the effects of maltreatment on brain development. Updated 2015.