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Jul 05, 2014 02:11 AM EDT

Childhood Stress Causes Long-Term Damage to Brain, Study

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A latest University of Wisconsin-Madison study has found that children, who experience early life stress like poverty, neglect and physical abuse, are more likely to suffer from brain abnormalities.

Researchers said that the chronic and toxic stress alters parts of developing children's brains accountable for learning, memory and the processing of stress and emotion. These changes may negatively affect behavior, health and employment among others.

"We haven't really understood why things that happen when you're 2, 3, 4 years old stay with you and have a lasting impact," said Seth Pollak, co-leader of the study and professor of psychology, in a press release.

Pollak said that previous studies have tied early life stress to depression, anxiety, heart disease, cancer, and a lack of educational and employment success.

For the study, the researchers surveyed four groups of children - three of them were associated with physical abuse, early neglect, and low socio-economic status and the fourth group (control) did not suffer any of these three criteria's.

The researchers interviewed the children and their parents/guardians about early life stress experiences. They then analysed the images of the brains of these groups of children.

The researchers found that children, who were subjected to early life stressors, had lower volumes in two regions of the brain - the hippocampus and the amygdala - when compared to the control group.

Smaller amygdala volumes was observed in all three of the early life stress groups and smaller hippocampal volumes were identified in children who were physically abused and belonged to lower socio-economic backgrounds.

The researchers concluded that higher early life stress and behavior problems were directly linked to lower volumes in the amygdalas and hippocampi of the children.        

The finding is published in the Journal Biological Psychiatry.       

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