How Childhood Abuse Changes the Brain

Permanent Physical Changes Can Cause Problems in Adulthood

Depressed girl sitting at the street
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Studies have demonstrated over and over that childhood abuse and neglect results in permanent changes to the developing human brain. These changes in brain structure appear to be significant enough to potentially cause psychological and emotional problems in adulthood, such as psychological disorders and/or substance abuse.

Using MRI to Show Changes in Brain Structure

Dr. Martin Teicher and his colleagues at McLean Hospital, Harvard Medical School and Northeastern University, used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology to identify measured changes in brain structure among young adults who had experienced childhood abuse or neglect.

There were clear differences in nine brain regions between those who had suffered childhood trauma and those who had not.

The most obvious changes were in the brain regions that help balance emotions and impulses, as well as self-centered thinking. The results indicate that people who have been through childhood abuse or neglect have a higher risk of substance abuse if they go down that path because they have a harder time controlling their urges and making rational decisions due to actual physical changes in their brain development.

The study went a step further and found that of the participants who had experienced three or more types of abuse (sexual, physical, verbal, neglect), 53% had suffered from major depression at some point in their lives and 40% had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

The Impact of Childhood Abuse on Brain Structure

There are many negative effects of childhood abuse and neglect on how the brain develops.

Some of these potential effects are:

  • A decrease in the size of the hippocampus, which is important in learning and memory
  • A decrease in the size of the corpus callosum, which functions for emotion, impulses and arousal, as well as communicating between the right and left brain hemispheres
  • A decrease in the size of the cerebellum, which can affect motor skills and coordination
  • A decrease in the volume of the prefrontal cortex, which affects behavior, balancing emotions and perception
  • Too much activity in the amygdala, which is responsible for processing emotions and determining reactions to potentially stressful or dangerous situations
  • Cortisol levels that are either too high or too low, which has negative effects

The Impact of Childhood Abuse on Behavior, Emotions and Social Function

Because childhood abuse, neglect and trauma changes brain structure and chemical function, maltreatment can also affect the way children behave, regulate emotion and function socially. These potential effects include:

  • Feeling fearful most or all of the time
  • Being constantly on alert and unable to relax, no matter the situation
  • A tendency to develop depression or an anxiety disorder
  • Learning deficits
  • Not hitting developmental milestones in a timely fashion
  • A weakened ability to process positive feedback
  • Finding social situations more challenging

Effects of Maltreatment Depend on Other Factors Too

How childhood abuse or neglect affects an adult depends also on how often the abuse occurred; what age the child was during the abuse; who the abuser was; whether or not the child had a dependable, loving adult in her life as well; how long the abuse lasted; if there were any interventions in the abuse; the kind and severity of the abuse; and other individual factors.


Teicher, M.H.; Anderson, C.M.; Ohashi, K. et al. "Childhood maltreatment: altered network centrality of cingulate, precuneus, temporal pole and insula." Biological Psychiatry. 76(4):297-305, 2014.

Szalavitz, Maia, "How Child Abuse Primes the Brain for Future Mental Illness ." Time (2012). 

"Understanding the Effects of Maltreatment on Brain Development." Child Welfare Information Gateway, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2015). 

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