Abused Children and Combat Soldiers Have Similar Brain Activity

I am not surprised at this study because many of the symptoms found in victims of incest and child sexual abuse, are often found in combat veterans. But I do have an issue with one comment in this article. Please see my comments at the bottom of the page. *

“Children exposed to family violence show the same pattern of activity in their brains as soldiers exposed to combat, new research has shown.

In the first functional MRI brain scan study to investigate the impact of physical abuse and domestic violence on children, scientists at UCL in collaboration with the Anna Freud Centre, found that exposure to family violence was associated with increased brain activity in two specific brain areas (the anterior insula and the amygdala) when children viewed pictures of angry faces.

Previous fMRI studies that scanned the brains of soldiers exposed to violent combat situations have shown the same pattern of heightened activation in these two areas of the brain, which are associated with threat detection. The authors suggest that both maltreated children and soldiers may have adapted to be ‘hyper-aware’ of danger in their environment.

However, the anterior insula and amygdala are also areas of the brain implicated in anxiety disorders. Neural adaptation in these regions may help explain why children exposed to family violence are at greater risk of developing anxiety problems later in life.

Dr Eamon McCrory, lead author from the UCL Division of Psychology and Language Sciences and the Anna Freud Centre, said: “We are only now beginning to understand how child abuse influences functioning of the brain’s emotional systems. This research is important because it provides our first clues as to how regions in the child’s brain may adapt to early experiences of abuse in the home.”

Dr McCrory added: “All the children studied were healthy and none were suffering from a mental health problem. What we have shown is that exposure to family violence is associated with altered brain functioning in the absence of psychiatric symptoms and that these alterations may represent an underlying neural risk factor. We suggest these changes may be adaptive for the child in the short term but may increase longer term risk”.

In the study, which is published in the journal Current Biology, 43 children had their brains scanned using an fMRI scanner. 20 children who had been exposed to documented violence at home were compared with 23 matched peers who had not experienced family violence. The average age of the maltreated children was 12 years old and they had all been referred to local social services in London.

When the children were in the scanner they were presented with pictures of male and female faces showing sad, calm or angry expressions. The children had only to decide if the face was male or female – processing the emotion on the face was incidental. As described, the children who had been exposed to violence at home showed increased brain activity in the anterior insula and amygdala in response to the angry faces.

Professor Peter Fonagy, Chief Executive of the Anna Freud Centre and professor of psychology at UCL, said: “Dr McCrory’s groundbreaking research has undoubtedly taken us an important step closer to understanding the devastation which exposing children to violence can leave in its wake.  His exciting findings confirm the traumatic effects these experiences have on brain development.

Professor Fonagy added: “The report should energize clinicians and social workers to double their efforts to safeguard children from violence. By helping us understand the consequences of maltreatment the findings also offer fresh inspiration for the development of effective treatment strategies to protect children from the consequences of maltreatment.”

Dr McCrory said: “Even though we know that maltreatment represents one of the most potent environmental risk factors associated with anxiety and depression, relatively little is known how such adversity ‘gets under the skin’ and increases a child’s later vulnerability.”

“The next step for us is to try and understand how stable these changes are. Not every child exposed to family violence will go on to develop a mental health problem; many bounce back and lead successful lives. We want to know much more about those mechanisms that help some children become resilient.”…

*I take exception to this last comment. I had many mental health problems before, and after, becoming extremely physically ill –when doctors had no idea what was wrong with me (read: when the memories of incest had manifested in my body). I then developed many more mental health issues during the time the incest was not yet conscious knowledge, but was pounding at my door with the physical illness, which doctors finally diagnosed as chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome.

Yet, I have always lead a successful life.

I have been married for 19 years and have been with my husband for 25 years. I worked since I was 15 years-old (in management positions) from ages 18-33, when I became too sick to work.

But even after I was bed-ridden, on and off for years, and physically incapable of functioning normally, I maintained myself as a moral human being, did charity work, petitioned for causes, wrote letters for cause, was involved in community matters as much as possible, and aided suffering animals in every situation put in my path.

Being “successful” does not mean a 9-5 “respectable” job, a college degree, or having nice material possessions.

Being a successful human being sometimes means being a person who chooses to take action in the world to stop injustice, to help a neighbor, to love and rescue animals, to support and care for your spouse. It can also mean being a good mother or father to kids, or animals.

Being successful sometimes just means to overcome seemingly insurmountable pain and suffering, completely healing from a disease doctors say has no cure or treatment, to heal from the mental health issues rooted in child neglect/abuse/trauma and having faith and patience –knowing the day will come when the pain and suffering will be conquered and replaced with health, liberation, and self-realization.

Me and My Baby Girl Spring 2013

Me and My Baby Girl Hiking in the Wilderness Spring 2013



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11 Responses to Abused Children and Combat Soldiers Have Similar Brain Activity

  1. little nel says:

    Great photo of you and your Baby Girl, Alethea!

    It’s great that we can be good to ourselves.

    • Alethea says:

      Thanks Little Nel. We must always be good to ourselves. All survivors of child abuse should treat themselves well –like they would a child, or a best friend.

  2. melissa lee says:

    It’s an uphill battle with how little most know about the core shattering, that happens with incest and abuse.. Most would rather die then know, the truth and have others die too.. So, I truly look forward to your blog in my inbox, as you are one that knows, the long hard struggle back..

    Melissa Lee

  3. little nel says:

    “Being successful sometimes just means to overcome seemingly insurmountable pain and suffering, completely healing from a disease doctors say has no cure or treatment, and having faith and patience-knowing the day will come when the pain and suffering will be conquered and replaced with health, liberation, and self-realization.”

    You stated this wonderfully, Alethea!

    I was told by a wise person that the best revenge on those that hurt us and betrayed us is to be a success. I believe it.

    Family members who trashed me and hurt me are still wallowing in their failed endeavors and self pity, while I bask in the fruit of my efforts and faith, that have given me health, liberation, and self-realization, a truly remarkable thing, when I look back on all that misery.

    • Rachel Myers says:

      Yes, thank you for that, Alethea. I feel like a societal failure. I failed at my dreams and I failed financially. I got my bachelor’s degree on a full scholarship, but I feel abused all over again by having been academically bullied out of my master’s degree program, and now have around $60,000 student loan debt, and was bullied out of my last three jobs. I don’t really have a job right now. But, I learned not to judge others, to have compassion, and to help when I can. And I was the best mom (single!) to my kids. I read lots of great books, learning how to parent differently, and that was one thing I was a success at. Oh, and I win at loving a good man. I waited 11 years to find him, and we are engaged.

      • mary says:

        I just wanted to say that this post really moved me personally and caused me to look at others with even more compassion. When you are abused, scapegoated, and unloved in your family or society, there is this inner need to prove yourself and be validated by over achievement, success, and fame that for a lot of people turns into compensation and that part of them that was wounded never really heals because it was simply masked by success and monetary gain. The against all odds stories are inspiring and certainly worthy of praise, but in reality, those stories are often few and far between sometimes I think it gives people the excuse to dismiss and withhold compassion for the abused children who don’t rise into high status into their adulthood who you often see homeless and drug addicted on the streets or incarcerated in prisons. Or even the people who are just average. My problem has been that I always saw achieving my goals as the ticket out of my torment and suffering and when I would either fail or achieve my goals and realized that nothing changed on the inside, I would fall into a state of emptiness and hopelessness. People should certainly pursue their goals and do everything they can to achieve them, but I think society should move out of the attitude of giving out compassion as a reward for the successful and instead give it out freely, the way it was meant to. The act of giving compassion is healing in itself, and last time I checked it doesn’t cost a thing.

        • mary says:

          I forgot to add… it’s giving unconditional compassion to yourself and then others. When you can give it to yourself, giving it to others just comes naturally.

        • little nel says:

          HI Mary,
          For most of my childhood, I was treated like an unwanted pet by my parents. I know firsthand how it feels to be unloved, unwanted, and alone. I also thought that overachieving would be my ticket out of my misery, when those things failed to give me the expected results, I went into a deep depression.

          I was fortunate to find other people who knew what the solution to my problems were. They lovingly and patiently guided me and pointed the way. It was an adventure that I never thought was possible and I owe it all to the kind people who gave unconditional love when I needed it most.

          • little nel says:

            I forgot to add, that I was mentally, financially, and spiritually bankrupt when I decided to learn from those who reached out to help me. It was the best decision that I had ever made in my life.

      • little nel says:

        Hi Rachel,
        I can relate with your feelings of failure. I have failed at least once in everything I tried to accomplish in life, but I did not give up on myself.

        My road was rough also.

        I’m happy to know that you have a good loving man in your life. Princess Diana of England did not get that in her lifetime, so you have more than she had.

        “When the road is rough the reward is great” This is what I told myself when I thought that I had failed myself and everyone else.

        I too, was bullied out of things, but I just kept pushing forward, believing that somehow, someway God would make it right for me and He did. That’s the kindness of God.

      • Alethea says:

        Rachel, congratulations! Never measure yourself against others, or what society puts forth as “successful” or the “correct” way to earn a living, or to live.

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