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Resilience, adversity and affective processing in childhood
Child maltreatment continues to represent a major societal problem. Maltreatment is a well established risk factor for a range of problems later in life, including depression and anxiety. Yet we know relatively little about how maltreatment can impact brain development in ways that may increase a chid’s later vulnerability or resilience. In our research we investigated how the experience of maltreatment may have influenced how children process emotion. We recruited children between the ages of 10 and 14 years of age, including a group of children who had experienced maltreatment at home and a group of matched peers. We used functional (fMRI) and structural (sMRI) magnetic resonance imaging, and other measures to investigate brain function and structure. Our findings demonstrated that when processing threat cues, maltreated children show significantly increased activation in brain regions implicated in pain anticipation and anxiety disorders. Indeed, these same regions show increased response to threat in soldiers exposed to combat. When we looked at brain structure, maltreated children showed decreased brain volume in brain regions that play a key role in decision-making and memory. These findings demonstrate that maltreatment is likely to alter how children’s brains process emotion. Our evidence points to a pattern of changes that may increase a child’s vulnerability to later depression and anxiety. We are continuing to analyse our data in relation to resilience, and hope that this work will inform better approaches to interventions.
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