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Trauma before we can remember still leaves a mark

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New research links stressful or traumatic experiences in a child’s earliest years—birth to age 5—to reduced hippocampal volume in adolescence.

“These findings tell us that there may be a ‘sensitive period’ in which stress is more likely to affect the development of the hippocampus, which is connected to learning, memory, and mood,” says lead author Kathryn L. Humphreys, an assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of education and human development, the director of the Stress and Early Adversity Lab, and a member of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.

“Given that the hippocampus undergoes rapid changes in the first years of life, the effects of stressful experiences during this period, even those the child doesn’t remember, may be particularly important in understanding the development of this region of the brain,” Humphreys says.

In the study, 178 early adolescents underwent structural magnetic resonance imaging. Researchers interviews them using a modified version of the Traumatic Events Screening Inventory for Children. The researchers examined more than 30 different stressors, including parental divorce, moving to a new community, separation from a loved one, illness or death of a close friend or family member, witnessing violence, and experiencing abuse.

“This work underscores the plasticity and vulnerability of the brain in early life,” Humphreys says.

“Our findings have important clinical implications given that smaller hippocampal volume has been prospectively linked to a number of outcomes, including vulnerability to psychopathology following trauma, poorer antidepressant treatment response, and memory deficits.”

The research appears in Developmental Science. Humphreys also has an invited paper in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology.

The National Institutes of Health, the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, the National Science Foundation, Klingenstein Third Generation Foundation, Jacobs Foundation, and the Stanford Precision Health and Integrated Diagnostics Center support Humphreys’ research.

Source: Vanderbilt University