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´┐╝Risk And Resilience Following Childhood Maltreatment: A Longitudinal Investigation
Childhood maltreatment continues to represent a major societal problem in the UK. The NSPCC have shown that almost one in five adolescents report experiencing severe maltreatment. Of these, around 70% experienced maltreatment from their parent or guardian. We know from previous research that familial maltreatment - including physical, sexual, emotional abuse and neglect - can have a profound impact on a child's development. In particular, we know that exposure to maltreatment significantly increases a child's risk of later mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. Over the last decade neuroscience has begun to shed light on why early adversity is associated with future problems. We and others have identified structural differences in specific parts of the brain that characterise children with maltreatment. However, there has been relatively little research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which investigates brain function. In the first fMRI study investigating the impact of physical abuse and domestic violence on children, we found that exposure to such adverse experiences were associated with greater activation in threat regions of the brain, including the amygdala, suggesting that these children may have become 'hypervigilant' to threat cues in their environment. But there are many important questions we still need to answer. Do the 'neural markers' associated with maltreatment go away over time or do they persist? Are these neural markers associated with future symptoms of anxiety or depression? Do brain changes differ across boys and girls? And what do we know about resilience? We plan to answer these questions by carrying out the first longitudinal fMRI study comparing children exposed to maltreatment with their non-maltreated peers. By following up the same children over time we can learn about how their brain function and structure changes, but we will also have the chance to see if brain differences early on predict future problems. We hope that our research will contribute to a better understanding of the impact of maltreatment on children and help inform more effective forms of prevention and treatment.
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