Entropy Rules

A Typical Development:

Trauma Effects, Optimal Functioning Brain

    While a thorough, technical explanation of the neurobiology of child maltreatment is beyond the scope of the current paper, some of the structural and functional brain differences observed in survivors of child maltreatment are noted here.
    The chronic, toxic stress associated with child maltreatment fundamentally alters the development of the nervous system. Fear and terror states involve hyperarousal of the sympathetic nervous system (Porges, 2001). This state is associated with increased adrenocortical output, which over time can lead to lifelong health issues, including certain structural differences in brain development that undergird difficulties in stress and emotion regulation, cognitive impairments, and impairments in psychophysiological responsiveness. (Hesse & Main, 2000; Palaszynski & Nemeroff, 2009). Ultimately, these difficulties set the stage for the development of mental and physical health problems later in life (Beers & De Bellis, 2002; Cicchetti & Valentino, 2006; De Bellis, Baum, et al., 1999; De Bellis, Keshavan et al., 1999; DeBellis, 2001/2005; Schore, 2001; Teicher, 2002).
    Schore (2003a) suggested that the early social milieu, mediated by the primary caregiver, directly influences the psychoneurobiological underpinnings of future social and emotional coping. Traumatic maltreatment, especially in the first 18 months of life, has been associated with long lasting damage in the orbitofrontal cortex, leading to impairments in social and moral behavior, and reduced empathic capacity, that in the extreme may resemble psychopathy (Anderson, Bechara, Damasio, Tranel & Damasio, 1999; Becker-Blease & Kerig, 2016; Blair & Cipolotti, 2000; Damasio, 2000; Schore, 2003b; Schore, 1994; Perry et al., 2001). The effects of severe interpersonal trauma in early life shapes developing right brain circuitry in ways that impact the processing of visual and auditory socio-emotional communication and regulation of the human stress response (Schore, 2003b). These developmental differences can lead to persistent affect dysregulation, a lack of empathy, and even overt hostility in peer and later romantic relationships (Hesse & Main, 2006).
    Additionally, multiple researchers have noted the lack of functional neural integration in child maltreatment survivors. Research by Teicher (2002) has shown that individuals who are maltreated as children show underdevelopment in certain integrative parts of the brain (e.g., significantly reduced corpus callosum area; see also Teicher et al., 2004). Another neurological mechanism by which child abuse impacts neural integrative capacities may be through the mirror neuron system. Schore (2003b) explains that interactions with fearful, angry, or dissociated caregivers leads to the encoding of these states as implicit memory traces in the young child's developing nervous system. These implicit memories might be experienced later in response to triggers in the environment that resemble, to a greater or lesser degree, some aspect of the original abuse or neglect situation (Schore, 2001; Schore, 2003b).
    The encoding of such states, along with chronically hyperraroused SNS activation characteristic of traumatic attachments, leads to intense reactivity of emotional states under stress that are difficult to regulate, which in turn contributes to aggressive interpersonal styles, and an enhanced propensity for violence (Cassidy & Mohr, 2006; Schore, 2003a/2003b; MacDonald et al., 2008). These same structural differences lead to a higher risk of developing dissociative behavior (e.g., the freeze response) and PTSD symptomology. The biological substrates of these neural differences (relative to "typical" development in a non-maltreating context) give rise to more frequent, intense, and longer-lasting experiences of negative affect, such as anger, fear, and/or dissociation. Additionally, these states tend to be insensitive to attempts at inner regulation or outer control (Schore, 2003a; 2003b).
    In short, the toxic chronic stress of child maltreatment not only impairs mental and physical health in general, but in particular leads to problematic development of brain regions involved in emotional experiencing and regulation, and socio-emotional skills. What results is a personality style with a propensity for dysregulated aggression and/or dissociation, risk factors for perpetuating further child maltreatment.

⇲ About The Author

Robin Hertz, MA is currently in the process of completing a PhD in Clinical Psychology at the University of Oregon.