Childhood stress may have lasting effects

According to a new study, early-life stress may actually change parts of developing children's brains, and affect their ability to learn and stay healthy.

By Mary Kuhlman

According to a new study, chronic early childhood stress brought on by poverty, neglect and physical abuse can have a lasting, toxic impact.

Sarah Romens, one of the co-authors of the report and a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Pittsburgh, says early childhood stress can affect a child for the rest of his or her life.

"Kids who are exposed to the kind of stress we're talking about tend to be at higher risk for all kinds of psychopathology and mental illness, including depression, anxiety, behavior problems, academic problems, and also health problems," says Romens. "Stress-related health problems like heart disease and immune-functioning disruption can result as well."

The researchers studied 128 children who had experienced neglect or physical abuse early in life and took images of the children's brains. They found noticeable differences in areas of the brain involved in emotion and stress processing.

Romens and her fellow researchers say these changes to the child's brain may be tied to future behavior, health, and even employment.

"The big take-home message is early social experiences and parenting can change our biology in ways that really help explain development of long-term health problems," says Romens. "This is a critical area to continue to study in order to understand exactly what's going on when children are living in an adverse environment."

The researchers say the findings of their study are not a crystal ball for seeing a child's future, but are a clear indicator that parents need to be very aware of the experiences their children are having.

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