Child abuse changes brain, causes depression
New study proves harrowing result of abuse on the brain and its implications for a relapse later in life
When a child is abused, the very structure of his or her brain is altered, making clinical depression later in life a much greater possibility.
This is the finding of a new study just published by the Lancet Psychiatry Journal. According to lead researcher Nils Opel at the University of Munster, Germany, “early life stress has a detrimental effect on brain structure which increases the risk of unfavourable disease courses in major depression”.
The study has major implications for SA where levels of child abuse are high: The Optimus Study by the University of Cape Town in 2015 showed that about 34% of our country’s children have been hit, beaten, kicked of physically hurt by an adult. One in five have been sexually abused, while at least 16% have been emotionally abused, and around 20% neglected. These all fall under the definition of child abuse.
The study concluded that “consequences of these forms of abuse are serious, and have implications both for the young people who suffer them, and for national development”.
The new research on the link with depression takes this even further.
The researchers led by Opel scanned the brains of 110 adults who had been admitted to hospital for a major depressive disorder. They were also interviewed to find out more about their depression and life history. They were asked to give input on the severity of their depression, and any maltreatment (emotional, sexual or physical) they had been exposed to as a child. Participants are all between the ages of 18 and 60, and had all been admitted to hospital for depression and recruited between 2010 and 2016.
The results, which were recently collated, were surprising: even though it seems logical that a victim of child abuse might suffer depression throughout life, and even though earlier studies had shown brain structure changes caused by abuse, this is the first study to link them.
The team found that “those who had both a history of childhood abuse and a smaller insular cortex were more likely to have a relapse” in terms of depression.
“Given the impact of the insular cortex on brain functions such as emotional awareness, it’s possible that the changes we saw make patients less responsive to conventional treatments. Future psychiatric research should therefore explore how our findings could be translated into special attention, care and treatment that could improve patient outcomes.”
Child abuse and its effects, including its impact on depression as detailed in the study, are a major human rights and social justice issue. But, the “fallout” of such abuse is also an economic one, according to experts.
In the same year as the Optimus study, another study on SA children done by the China Agricultural University found that “reduced earnings attributable to childhood physical violence and emotional violence in South Africa in 2015 were R25.2bn and R9.6bn respectively”.