Childhood Maltreatment Reduces Fear Circuit Connectivity, Study Shows

Circuit board imageA study by the University of Wisonsin – one of the first to examine altered fear circuitry connectivity in  relation to childhood maltreatment – has found significant evidence of changes to brain circuit connectivity in response to childhood abuse.

The findings, published in PNAS, hope to further the understanding of the commonly accepted link between childhood abuse and internalising disorders such as depression developing in adolescence and adulthood.

Childhood maltreatment has long been identified as a major risk factor in developing depression later in life, yet little is known about the alteration of connectivity of the brain’s fear circuitry – an important candidate mechanism linking abuse and the development of internalising disorders.

To examine the inner workings of fear circuitry researchers used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to detect the resting state functionality of brain connectity. The resting state is a method of exploring the brain’s functional organization and to examine if it is altered in cases of neurological or psychiatric disease.

64 young participants in a longitudinal community study were studied to link:

  • experiences of maltreatment during childhood
  • the resting state of functional brain connectivity
  • evidence of the development of internalising symptoms

Results showed that connectivity of fear circuitry in the brain is significantly affected by experiences of maltreatment. Both males and females showed reduced connectivity in the fronto-hippocampal area (hippocampus-subgenual cingulate) yet only females showed evidence of additional altered connectivity within the fronto-hippocampal area and also the lower prefrontal -amygdala (amydala- subgenual).

The hippocampus – named after its visual resemblance to the sea horse (hippo meaning “horse” and kampus meaning “sea monster”) is a major component of the brain and plays an important role in processing information from short-term memory to long-term memory.

Study highlights:

  • lower hippocampussubgenual cingulate resting- states functional connectivity in both adolescent females and males (also known as area 25 )
  • lower function in the amygdala subgenual cingulate resting state-functional connectivity in females only
  • resting-state functional connectivity mediated the association of maltreatment during childhood with adolescent internalizing symptoms

Maltreatment in childhood, even at the lower severity levels found within a community sample, may alter the regulatory capacity of the brain’s fear circuit and lead to increased internalizing symptoms by late adolescence. Neuropsychologist and lead researcher, Dr Herringa, said:

Findings highlight the importance of fronto-hippocampal connectivity for both sexes in internalizing symptoms following mal- treatment in childhood. The impact of maltreatment during childhood on both frontoamygdala and hippocampal connectivity in females may help explain their higher risk for internalizing disorders such as anxiety and depression.”


PNAS document: Childhood maltreatment is associated with altered fear circuitry and increased internalizing symptoms by late adolescence

Image credit: with thanks to RGB Freestock Cris DeRaud


Humans and Elephants: Poor Social Skills in Adulthood After Early Trauma


Studies into adult outcomes for children who are exposed to bullying, and, studies of young elephants who experience trauma via culling or relocation show that early trauma can impair social understanding in adulthood for animals and humans.

Research in two separate studies; one of adult outcomes of exposure to bullying by UK Warwick University and the other into social understanding of young elephants in adulthood by UK Sussex University, further the understanding of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the long term affects of trauma.
Warwick University UK looked beyond the immediate effects of bullying to find consequences in adulthood for children who were exposed to bullying in childhood.

Published in Psychology Today, researchers investigated outcomes in terms of health, economic status and social relationships in early adulthood.

Trauma via bullying was found to be negative for the victim and the “bully-victim” – the victim who turned bully who proved to fare poorest of all and vulnerable to every kind of social inequality. Bully-victims were typically from deprived backgrounds, showed signs of poor emotional regulation, higher incidents of mental health problems and a lack of resources to deal with stress.

Despite the team adding a control for family economic hardship and childhood psychiatric disorders, the bully-victim remained the most likely to suffer from adverse consequences to childhood abuse during early adulthood including –

  • increased risk of diagnosis of a serious psychiatric disorder
  • a slow recovery rate from illness
  • difficulty in maintaining employment
  • difficulty in maintaining friendships and positive relations with parents
  • low economic status

Evidence supported a “dose-response effect” – the change in effect caused by different levels of exposure (or doses) to a stressor after a certain exposure time of being bullied for poor wealth and social outcomes.

Professor Wolke said,

We cannot continue to dismiss bullying as a harmless, almost inevitable, part of growing up. We need to change this mindset and acknowledge this as a serious problem for both the individual and the country as a whole; the effects are long-lasting and significant.”

Bullying is a fundamental concern for schools, parents, and policymakers alike. Interventions in childhood are likely to reduce long-term health and social costs for those affected by bullying in adulthood.

A first-time study into trauma in wild African Elephants has discovered that elephants suffer long-term consequences to their social understanding as a direct consequence of culling and relocation in early life.

The research by UK Sussex University published in the Frontiers in Zoology journal parallels findings in studies in human post-traumatic stress disorder.

The impairment from disruption in early life was found to lead to two negative consequences. Disrupted elephant populations suffered social impairment from the initial experience of witnessing the killing of elders in their family group, and then further trauma from losing the opportunity to interact and learn from experienced elders in the group.

Elephants live in complex social groups in which elders pass on successful patterns of behavior to younger individuals in the family.

In an experiment that saw 50 different recorded sounds that simulated calls from elephants of different sizes and ages (older and larger animals being more socially dominant) played to orphaned group and undisturbed elephant groups, orphaned elephants were seen to be unable to decipher different calls or decipher different levels of social threat.

Four key behavior were used to measure the responses of the elephant groups during the playback experiments –

  • occurrence of defensive bunching
  • intensity of the bunching response
  • prolonged listening
  • investigative smelling

The elephants from traumatized group of elephants were less successful in correctly recognizing the threat from unknown elephants or discriminating between callers from different age classes. They also failed to respond with the level of attentiveness required for the oldest callers, who represented socially dominant individuals.

Dr Shannon concludes:
Our results have implications for the management of elephants in the wild and captivity, in view of the aberrant behavior that has been demonstrated by traumatized individuals. The findings also have important implications for other long-lived, social and cognitively advanced species, such as primates, whales and dolphins.”

Responding to dominant individuals within the social hierarchy is essential to success within complex elephant societies. Elephants interact with hundreds of other elephants outside of their own families when roaming and feeding and suitable social responses prevent negative interactions.
Warwick press release: Far from being harmless, the effects of bullying last long into adulthood

Psychology Science: Impact of Bullying in Childhood on Adult Health, Wealth, Crime, and Social Outcomes.

Sussex press release: Orphan elephants less socially clued-up decades later, research reveals.

Frontiers in Zoology: Effects of social disruption in elephants persist decades after culling
Image credit: with thanks to AryP of RGB Free Stock

The Whereabouts of Worry; Perseverative Cognition and the Left Front Lobe

stress imageIn a longitudinal stress study by the American Psychological Association, more Americans than ever before reported struggling to cope with rising stress levels. 1 in 5 reported a level of stress perceived to be beyond their capacity to cope.

Chronic stress, especially when long term, can impact adversely on health. Untreated, stress can lead to, or aggrevate a number of existing conditions such as –

  • cardiovascular disease
  • digestive problems
  • obesity
  • insomnia
  • depression and anxiety

Stress impairs the immune system and impacts our ability to recover. We can be stressed until we are broken.

Modern life

Modern life has created  a speedier. more accessible reality. Faster does not mean fairer. A study by the London School of Economics and Social Policy found a new social inequality was created in the search for work. Young  people who did not have constant access to a fast broadband connection were at a severe disadvantage. According to researchers, young people who could not respond to a job advert as soon as it was advertised online had “low or zero chance of success.”

Other modern stressors –

  • Mobile technology: enables communication but shackles us to be available, accessible and always “on”. Links have been found between mobile phone usage and rising anxiety levels, especially in the young and those already experiencing anxiety.
  • Living alone: 16% of adults in the UK live and eat alone – that’s 9,408,000 living without the support of a family unit. The figure of single occupation has nearly doubled during the last 40 years from 9%.
  • The career scrapbook The world of work has changed. The concept of career has evolved into a ‘portfolio’ of work opportunities for the lucky and a scrap book of short term contracts for the less so. Each new opportunity demanding us to shape shift for each new employer. On average 11 employers will recruit us during  an average working life.
  • Homes and rentals Home ownership is an unlikely concept for many. Financially squeezed into a lifetime of renting, a large section of the working population are working for the cognitive rewards of just not being unemployed.

The most vulnerable are those unprotected from the sharp edges of a changeable economy and an unstable workplace; the young, the poor and those with a disability.

“Millenials” (18-24) reported the highest stress levels. They proved too the most likely to engage in negative, dangerous coping activity. Young people without family, without financial support, face the biggest trials.

The UK government is proving to be a harsh task master. In the UK, benefits for young people and those with a disability have seen the biggest cuts. Today sees further announcements to young people’s benefits if they are “NEET” or “Not in Employment, Education or Training.”

The future for those young people without recourse to emotional and financial support looks fraught, not bright.

It comes as little surprise that the World Health Organisation predicts that depression will be the largest threat to global health in 2030.

In the New England Journal of Medicine “Global Mental Health,” researchers identify the most vulnerable groups as the young who do not have easy access to mental health services, the old who are not adequately catered for in terms of dementia care or elderly mental health and those in developing countries. The authors warn of “intense suffering.”

Subject to the vagaries of scale, depression can impair an individual’s natural ability to manage their everyday responsibilities.

At its very worst, depression can incapacitate, hospitalize and lead to loss of life through suicide. Almost 3,000 lives are lost each day according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The Mechanics of Worry.

Some people make decisions quickly, expertly, like cognitive knee jerks. Others ruminate, incapacitated by the myriad of options that a decision offers.

A study by Sussex University into the inner workings of chronic worry has pinpointed the site in the brain as the left front lobe, the exact same spot as complex thought or “systematic processing.”

A team of Sussex psychologists analysed 30 years of cognitive research to breakdown the components of worry finding that the part of the brain used in complex thought processes is also activated in cases of “perservative cognition” – chronic, debilitating worry found in severe cases of depression.

Depressed, anxious people experience “effortful” thought and  trigger systematic processing, non-anxious people have a more “heuristic” process – a quick, effortless “short cut” approach to decision making.

Unlike animals, people can replay distressing past and potential future images. Often a component of depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress “perseverative cognition” involves rumination, negative thoughts and excessive analysis of situations.

People who don’t suffer from anxiety have a much easier ride than depressed people when making decisions and imagining the future – this new discovery of the exact whereabouts of worry goes in some part to explain why.


Clinical Psychology Review
Systematic information processing style and perseverative worry

Affects of worry on the body:

Depression: A Global Crisis PDF report

Stress in America:

The brain system that stops worriers just going with the flow
Sussex University:

Image: RGB Free Stock.
Thanks to Serpintino

Stress in Young America: Why the US is on Red Alert

SubwayA study conducted over 7 years to measure stress and its impact across America has reported that more young Americans than ever before are suffering from a level of stress beyond their capacity to cope. Young Americans are more likely to deal with stress with negative coping strategies such as smoking, drinking, sleeping or overeating.

In the survey by The American Psychological Association the general perception of stress across generations had declined by 1.3 with Americans rating their average stress level as 4.9 instead of 6.2 in 2007. However, more Americans are reporting stress levels above what they consider to be normal and 1 in 5 Americans rate their stress levels 8, 9 or 10 in a 10-point scale where 1 is “little or no stress” and 10 is “a great deal of stress.“

Young people, “Millenials” (18-33) recorded the highest levels of stress of all of the age groups; Generation Xers (34-47), Boomers (48 to 66) and Matures (67 years and older). With youth unemployment nudging towards double the national average at 13 percent, young people were bearing the brunt of the economic fallout. The US Department of Labor reported that 39 percent of young adults reported struggling to pay rent or medical bills, cutting back on spending or losing their jobs last year.

The generations showed interesting differences in coping with stress; Boomers and Matures were more likely to go to religious services than younger adults (Millennials: 16 percent; Gen Xers: 19 percent; Boomers: 23 percent; Matures: 32 percent), while younger generations were more likely to shop (Millennials: 19 percent; Gen Xers: 13 percent; Boomers: 10 percent; Matures: 6 percent).

The survey asked the 2020 participants to rate their stress level and the health care they received to help them with managing and coping with the effects of stress on their health. The report highlighted that a majority of stressed Americans felt that they were being failed by their health care providers and received little if any support to minimise the effects of stress on their lives.  Health care providers were not seen to adequately support lifestyle and behavior issues like stress management, depression or anxiety, weight management, anger or lack of sleep.

Although the number of participants reporting positive coping mechanisms such as listening to music, working out or spending time being with family had increased, still 25 percent of people turned to negative coping mechanisms such as overeating, smoking, sleeping or drinking to cope with stress.  Millennials and Gen Xers were most likely to say that they engage in unhealthy behaviors because of stress and experience symptoms of stress.

The impact of stress on people’s lives can be huge and can lead to, or aggravate, a host of physical and mental health problems including heart disease, digestive problems, sleep problems, depression and obesity. Chronic stress also takes its toll on the immune system.

Highlights from the “Stress in America” report:

The top sources of stress were:
1. money (69 percent)
2. work (65 percent) 3. the economy (61 percent)
4. family responsibilities (57 percent)
5. relationships (56 percent)
6. family health problems (52 percent)
7. personal health concerns (51 percent).

Average city stress ratings:

Atlanta: 5
Atlantans are more likely than adults nationwide to say they have been told by a health care provider that they are overweight (33 percent vs. 22 percent) and to have high blood pressure (34 percent vs. 30 percent).

Chicago: 4.7
Chicagoans are less likely than adults nationwide to think that psychologists can help with lifestyle or behavior changes (33 percent vs. 42 percent). Fewer Chicagoans than Americans overall say that they have been referred to a mental health provider (8 percent vs. 12 percent).

Denver: 5.5

Stress levels in Denver increased.  People living in Denver are more likely to say that they have been referred to a mental health provider (16 percent vs. 12 percent). They are also far more likely to say that money is a significant source of stress than Americans overall.

Detroit: 5.1

More Detroit residents this year report that work is a significant source of stress. They also place more importance on success in their careers and studies and feel they are reaching vocational goals. The percentage of people in Detroit who say their health is fair or poor has increased from 16 percent in 2011 to 25 percent in 2012.

Los Angeles: 5

People living in Los Angeles report lower average stress levels compared to last year (5.0 vs. 5.3 on a 10-point scale). Concerns over health are higher in Los Angeles: 61 percent of Los Angeles residents say personal health concerns are a significant source of stress compared to 51 percent of Americans overall.

New York City: 5.2

Thirty-six percent of New Yorkers give their physical health care an “A” grade, while 31 percent grade their mental health care the same. Several commonly reported sources of stress such as money, work and the economy are cited more frequently as stressors by New Yorkers than Americans overall.

Seattle: 4.7

In Seattle the average reported stress level has declined. In Seattle, almost half of adults (47 percent) give their physical health care an “A” grade, compared to 35 percent of adults nationwide. Only 36 percent of Seattle residents say the same about their mental health care.

Washington D.C: 5

D.C. residents are more likely than Americans overall to say they are in excellent or very good health (44 percent vs. 40 percent). D.C. residents are more likely than Americans overall to say they are in excellent or very good health (44 percent vs. 40 percent).


The Tell Tale Signs of Stress

Approximately seven in 10 Americans report that they experience physical (69 percent) or non-physical symptoms (67 percent) of stress. Symptoms include;

irritability or anger (37 percent)

fatigue (37 percent)

feeling overwhelmed (35 percent)

changes in sleeping habits (30 percent).

The report concludes that interventions for the prevention and treatment of stress by health care professionals have seen to have failed the American population.  Despite over 50 percent or participants agreeing that psychological support would be beneficial to their life, only 6 percent reported being referred to a mental health professional.

High stress left untreated can leave people vulnerable to developing chronic diseases such as depression. The World Federation for Mental Health predicts that depression will be the leading cause of the global burden of disease in 2030. In a futurologist career report the most demanded professional in the next 20 years is predicted to be psychologists and counsellors, second only in demand to data analysts.

With young people reporting the highest levels of stress, the future looks more difficult to navigate for the Millennials than it has been for any other generation.


Stress in America.  Open up PDF report.

Depression: A Global Crisis PDF report

Guide to help with stress –