Childhood Abuse Has Long-lasting Effects on Brain Function

(© Derek Simon 2015)
(© Derek Simon 2015)


Why is it that one person becomes an addict and another does not?

This is a central question in addiction field and one that I’ve touched on in some of my posts (and will continue to explore in the future). Two recent papers may help to shed more light on this difficult and complicated question. Both studies have revealed changes that occur in the brain as a result of childhood trauma that may cause an individual to be more susceptible to risky behavior such as drug abuse.

Both papers are neuroimaging studies meaning they use living human subjects and look at brain activity in response to different scenarios. There are many ways to image a living brain but these studies both use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Basically, fMRI measures blood flow into the brain. As neurons turn “on” (that is, when they conduct an electrical signal), they require energy. Neurons use glucose as their primary energy source, which is delivered to them through blood flow. Therefore, the more blood flowing to a region of the brain = the more energy required by neurons = more neurons “firing”.

 The analysis of fMRI data is very complicated and beyond the scope of my knowledge or this discussion. But in essence, when you think or read about something, certain areas of your brain process that information. Using fMRI, you can actually visualize regions of the brain that are turning “on” or “off” when a patient thinks about a particular situation! Watch these YouTube videos for additional explanations on fMRI.


fMRI Image (
fMRI Image (

In both of the studies featured in today’s post, subjects would read different scripts while in the fMRI scanner and the scientists would image the entire brain and identify the regions that were active during the test. Then data from multiple subjects can be compiled and a composite image that represents the averages all the subjects can be produced. The picture to the right is an example of this type of composite image. Finally, you can see which regions of the brain are active for most of the patients during the different experiments. Keep this information in mind as I go over the papers.

Elsey et al. Neuropsychopharm. 2015

The first paper performed fMRI scans on adolescents that had or had not experienced maltreatment or trauma during childhood (less than 18 years old). 67 subjects were recruited from a larger study looking at disadvantaged youth and 64 were eventually used in the study. The adolescents filled out a standard survey that allowed the scientists to learn which of the subjects had experienced maltreatment/trauma during childhood.

The experiment involved having the different subjects read a script about either a stressful moment, their favorite food, or something neutral or relaxing while their brains were being imaged in the fMRI scanner.

Amazingly, for the stressful scenario, a difference in brain activity was detected in multiple regions of the prefrontal cortex only in subjects that had experienced childhood maltreatment! What this means is those youths that were abused as kids responded to stress differently than youths that were not abused. Their brain function has literally been changed later in life as a result of the abuse they suffered as children.

 The prefrontal cortex is a part of the mesocorticolimbic system, a group of brain areas especially involved in addiction. The prefrontal cortex is also involved in decision making, impulsivity, and other functions. It’s not clear what this change in prefrontal cortex activity actually means but it is possible that the altered activity could make the youth more vulnerable to stress or more likely to engage in risky activities, such as drug abuse.

 Elton et al. Addiction Biol. 2014

The second study was also interested in subjects that had experienced maltreatment or trauma during childhood but it instead of adolescents, this study used subjects that are adult men dependent on cocaine. Similarly, the subjects were grouped into those that had been mistreated as kids and those that had not.

In a parallel design to the other study, the subjects read a script describing a situation while being scanned in the fMRI machine. The scripts in this study included stress, cocaine-associated, and neutral. Interestingly, an increase in activity in a specific region of the prefrontal cortex and an area of the brain involved in motor activity were detected in the subjects that had been abused during childhood. And even more important, these changes were correlated to enhanced drug craving. These results suggest that childhood trauma can affect drug craving for addicts, which may be relevant factor in triggering relapse. That is to say, addicts that have been abused as children may be more vulnerable to not only acquiring addiction but also relapse.

 It is important to keep in mind that, like the previous study, the real functional importance of these different changes in unknown. However, clearly there are real changes that occur in the brain as a result of abuse/maltreatment during childhood. Imaging data must be taken with a grain of salt because it is difficult to show real causality. Yet, both studies (and many others) suggest long-lasting changes in brain activity, especially in response to stress, as a result of childhood trauma/maltreatment.

The conclusions we can draw from these studies is that childhood mistreatment, or trauma can have lasting changes on the brain. How these changes affect behavior is a much more difficult question to answer. Nevertheless, the changes that occur may be one of the factors that can contribute to susceptibility to addiction. These studies are supported by a previous post in which animal studies have shown that stress during early age leads to greater drug use as an adult.

And a broader point, these two neuroimaging studies help to put a different perspective on disadvantaged youth and importance of a stable home life, the lack of which can significantly affect you as an adult and may even contribute to susceptibility of become a drug addict.


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