What are the Long-Term Impacts of Childhood PTSD on Brain Development?

What are the Long-Term Impacts of Childhood PTSD on Brain Development?

Children who are exposed to traumatic events, such as violence, war, or sexual abuse, may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Children with PTSD show symptoms such as upsetting dreams, extreme psychological reactions to triggers that remind them of the traumatic event, social withdrawal, outbursts of anger, concentration problems, and frequent displays of negative emotions like sadness, shame, and fear.

While these outward symptoms may be apparent, the changes occurring within the brain are less visible to an outsider. Trauma exposure can negatively influence childhood brain development, creating changes that last over time. These changes are described below in more detail. 

Trauma and the developing brain: What the research says 

Exposure to traumatic events has an undeniable impact on the developing brain. Some of the impacted brain areas are as follows:

  • The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex: This brain region is involved in cognitive control of emotions, and research with children with PTSD shows that they have less gray matter, or neuron cell bodies, in this region. This can make it more difficult to regulate emotions.
  • The amygdala: Responsible for regulating fear, the amygdala becomes active in response to negative emotions. Childhood trauma causes the amygdala to become overactive in response to negative stimuli. 
  • The hippocampus: Research suggests childhood trauma disrupts the development of the hippocampus, such that its size decreases over time in children with PTSD. In typically developing children, the hippocampus size increases with age, whereas it tends to decrease in size among children with trauma. The hippocampus plays a role in responding to threats and thus is also affected by trauma exposure. 

The lasting effects of childhood trauma on the brain

Childhood PTSD can alter brain development, and these effects can last through adulthood. One study with adult survivors of childhood trauma found that they had reduced gray matter volume in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This can place adults with a trauma history at increased risk of developing depression.

Other research has shown that adults with a history of childhood trauma experience widespread alterations in brain structure, which can lead to cognitive and emotional abnormalities.  Additionally, adults with a history of child abuse have been found to have increased connectivity among the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex, providing evidence that trauma has lasting effects on the functioning of the brain. 

The impact of childhood trauma on brain development is so profound that it can affect adult cognitive functioning. One study with women who had a history of trauma found they demonstrated impairments in several cognitive domains, including memory, language, and attention. 

Real-life PTSD implications

The bottom line is that childhood PTSD alters brain development, especially in regions responsible for responding to threats and regulating emotions. The effects of altered brain development can last well into adulthood, making it difficult for adults with a trauma history to regulate emotions. As a result of disrupted brain development, adults with a childhood trauma history may also experience cognitive impairments, which can negatively affect their memory, attention, and language-processing abilities.

To reduce the long-term impacts of trauma on brain development, it is important for children with trauma to be identified so that they can receive treatment and intervention. Research has shown that trauma treatments, such as therapy, not only improve symptoms but also alter brain functioning. This means that psychotherapy has the potential to reverse the adverse effects of trauma on the brain, while reducing PTSD symptom severity and allowing patients to better regulate their emotions.

If a child in your life has a history of trauma associated with childhood PTSD, seeking treatment can help them cope with symptoms. It can also have a profound impact on their development, reversing some of trauma’s negative effects on the brain. Bridge to Balance offers trauma-informed services to youth in New Jersey and Maine. Visit our webpage today to learn more or to schedule an appointment. 











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