Tough experiences such as abuse or family instability before age six are tied to changes in brain structure and to a higher risk of anxiety or depression, according to a study of mother-son pairs in England. MRI scans showed boys who faced adversity early in life had less cortical gray brain matter and altered brain structure by the time they reached their late teens or early 20s.
The authors believe the findings may suggest that structural variations of the brain tied to depression might be associated with early adversity in addition to the effects of depression, according to a study published online in JAMA Pediatrics.
Researchers at King's College followed almost 500 pairs of mothers and sons, starting during pregnancy, from 1991 or 1992. Roughly every year from infancy to age six, the mothers answered questions about 37 types of adversity in the home, including interpersonal loss, family instability and abuse toward the child or mother. The study was limited to male participants and all MRI procedures were performed during late adolescence.
The study concluded that the research opens the possibility that intervention could help prevent children from internalizing symptoms and protect them against abnormal brain development.