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Childhood abuse, poverty impact adult brain

NEW ORLEANS — Scientists have learned that if a child grows up in poverty or is the victim of abuse, his brain will experience permanent negative effects. These findings were presented at this week’s Neuroscience 2012, the annual convention of the Society for Neuroscience.

One study focused on the effects of physical abuse. Out of 155 healthy adults, those who reported childhood abuse had lower amounts of activity in “body-control” brain regions while doing mildly stressful tasks inside fMRI scanners, according to the news release.

The brain’s “body-control” areas regulate the heart and other internal organs, as well as hormonal response to stress, according to the report. These brain areas work together to control stress, but in participants who reported abuse, the regions “responded even more in lock-step.”

“People who show large, stress-induced changes in blood pressure are at an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and accompanying emotional disorders,” lead author Layla Banihashemi said in the release. “Altered stress responses of ‘body-control’ brain regions in individuals with a history of abuse may contribute to this heightened vulnerability to physical and mental health problems.”

Poverty and education level of parents also affect the brain, according to two other studies.

In one, brain volume, including areas that affect memory and emotion, was found to be directly related to socioeconomic status of the parents of 60 diverse children. “Specifically, higher parental education levels predicted larger amygdala volumes, whereas higher income-to-needs ratios predicted larger hippocampal volumes,” according to lead author Suzanne Houston, a researcher at the University of Southern California.

In the second study, Eric Pakulak, research associate at the University of Oregon, found similar direct correlations between childhood poverty and working memory in adult brains.

“Adults who grew up in greater poverty show(ed) deficits in selective attention and language processing,” the report said.

But in this case, the negative effects don’t all have to be permanent. Specific training during childhood can help strengthen some of these thought processes for children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, according to the news release.

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