Friday, December 9, 2011
The brains of these children become increasingly "tuned" for identifying possible sources of danger, said U.K. researchers who used functional imaging to monitor brain activity.
When the study authors showed pictures of angry faces to children with a history of abuse, the children's brains showed increased activity in the anterior insula and amygdala, which are involved in detecting threat and anticipating pain.
These changes don't indicate brain damage but are the brain's way of adapting to a challenging or dangerous environment, study author Eamon McCrory, of University College London, explained.
The study appears in the Dec. 6 issue of the journal Current Biology.
"Enhanced reactivity to a biologically salient threat cue such as anger may represent an adaptive response for these children in the short term, helping keep them out of danger," McCrory said in a journal news release. "However, it may also constitute an underlying neurobiological risk factor increasing their vulnerability to later mental health problems, and particularly anxiety."
The findings are important because of the large numbers of children who are exposed to family violence.
"This underlines the importance of taking seriously the impact for a child of living in a family characterized by violence. Even if such a child is not showing overt signs of anxiety or depression, these experiences still appear to have a measurable effect at the neural level," McCrory said.