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Stress during childhood affects brain development

Severe stress during childhood including physical abuse, neglect and may poverty change parts of the brain associated with memory, learning and processing of emotion and stress.

The achievement gap measured through elementary and middle school tests has caused a lot of debate but what experts must focus on is the first 1,000 days of children's lives.

A recent research studied 128 children around 12 years old who experienced physical abuse, neglect or poverty. The researchers interviewed the children and their caregivers, looking into their life stress and behavioral problems. The team also looked into the children's brains, mainly on the amygdale and hippocampus which are responsible for emotions and stress processing. The results were compared to other children who were not maltreated and those who came from middle-class families.  

The researchers outlined the children's amygdala and hippocampus to calculate the volumes because automated software used to measure these may be erroneous. They found both structures to be very small. The children who were physically abused had smaller amygdale and hippocampus and those who experience any of these early life stresses had smaller amygdale. Those who were maltreated and those from low socioeconomic status households had smaller hippocampus volumes. The structures may be related to negative effects on the child's health, behavior, employment and romantic relationships later in life.

"We haven't really understood why things that happen when you're two, three, four years old stay with you and have a lasting impact yet," University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor and study co-leader Dr. Seth Pollak said. "Early life stress has been tied to depression, anxiety, heart disease, cancer and a lack of educational and employment success."

For Pollack, the findings are an important reminder to the society that different experiences of children should be properly attended to because this is how people shape how these individuals will become in the future. The authors note that the study showed markers of neurological change. They said it is a display of the human brain's robustness and human biology's flexibility. The team clarified that the study is not to be used to foresee the future, saying that what's in the brain doesn't translate to destiny.

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