Iycee Charles de Gaulle Summary Neurobiology of child abuse Essay

Neurobiology of child abuse Essay

Scars That Won’t Heal is an article written by Martin Teicher detailing his work over the years on the neurobiological aspects of childhood abuse.  The article discusses the consequences of child abuse, both on internal and external levels, and including conditions such as impulsiveness, depression, suicidal thoughts, stress, depression and substance abuse, among others (Teicher, 2002, Extreme Personalities section, para. 1).  Truly, childhood abuse is devastating to the victim, not only because of the experience but because of the future trauma and inability to develop mechanisms to fight it.  The researchers looked into the possibility that apart from neuropsychological factors like developing self-defeating defense mechanisms and inability to fully develop psychosocially (Teicher, 2002, Introduction section, para. 3), childhood abuse might also affect the child’s brain and neural functions.

Over the years, Teicher–working with other researchers–have found evidence that may prove his claims that childhood abuse may affect the brain and its related functions.  First, he found that most patients who were abused as children reported having more symptoms related to temporal lobe epilepsy than those who were not abused.  Electroencephalograms on abused patients also showed more abnormalities in brain waves.  Other researchers had found more physical evidence: smaller hippocampus, smaller amygdala (Teicher, 2002, Abuse-Driven Brain Changes section, para. 2-5).  Teicher and his fellow researchers also looked into the possibility of abuse causing abnormal development of the left and right brain, as well as integration of both hemispheres (Teicher, 2002, Left-side Problems section, paras. 3 and 5).

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The sad truth is that childhood abuse does not end when the perpetrator is found out, or when the child grows up to be an adult.  The trauma leaves scars that forever haunt the victim.  Numerous studies have found that childhood abuse is a leading cause of a host of mental and physical health problems (Corso, et. al., 2008, p.1094).  Phaedra S Corso,  Valerie J Edwards,  Xiangming Fang,  and James A Mercy defines childhood maltreatment as acts of omission or commission by caregivers (usually parents) that is harmful, or potentially harmful, to the child’s dignity, health, development or survival (Corso, et. al, 2008, p. 1094).  This definition basically encompasses any act that has or might have negative implications for the child, which includes inflicting pain, shouting, embarrassment, and those that are sexual in nature.

Traditionally, experts, psychologists, counselors and psychiatrists dealt with childhood abuse from a neuropsychological perspective.  Most have used psychological interventions, treatments and therapies to tackle the problem.  A prime example of this traditional perspective is the 2006 study by Christine Bogar and Diana Hulse-Killacky on the resiliency of female sexual abuse victims.  Bogar and Hulse-Killacky found that women who were skilled interpersonally, have high self regard, were competent and spiritual, and were experiencing helpful and beneficial life circumstances were more likely to be resilient, which involves coping with the experience, getting over it, healing and getting closure.  (2006, p. 321).  What they found adds credence to the traditional view that helping abuse victims, sexual or otherwise, is a purely psychological process.  In fact, the researchers note that the resiliency process involved is behavioral and cognitive in nature.  These cognitive and behavioral processes are further helped by current life events that encourage or assist the victim to move on, as well as the importance of forgiveness in closure.

It may seem like their findings contrasts with that of Teicher’s researches.  Teicher and his various co-researchers have found that early childhood stress and trauma causes the victim’s brain to develop differently, and as such, the symptoms and consequences he or she experiences is much more permanent, and incurable.  Teicher, however, provides some misgivings about his own research.  While evidence is strong that stress and its related hormones can cause the brain to develop in a manner that is different from what is considered normal, Teicher relents that human brains are shaped by experiences, and is highly adaptive.  Basically, Teicher concludes that to say that childhood abuse damages the brain is flat out erroneous.  It is more correct to hypothesize that childhood trauma causes changes in the neural development of the brain that may cause some changes in physical size, but never really damages the brain.  This would provide a window of opportunity that psychologically-oriented treatments and therapies may still be effective.

In effect, both studies show the two sides of the same coin.  Just because they offer different perspectives of explaining the problem does not necessarily mean that one is wrong and the other is infallible.  In contrast, it would be beneficial for the victims and the people who help them to see both sides to come up with a comprehensive treatment program.  While therapy and intervention related to cognitive, behavioral and psychological processes can help alter a patient’s world view and quality of life, making him or her more apt for getting over the experience and living a better life, brain structures and associated brain hormones and chemicals have to be considered.  If they do come into play, medications may prove beneficial, if not crucial, to therapy.


Bogar,C.B. and Hulse-Killacky, D. (2006). Resiliency determinants and resiliency processes among female adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Journal of Counseling ; Development, 84(Summer), 318-327.

Corso, P., Edwards, V., Fang, X. Mercy, J. (2008). Health-Related Quality of Life Among Adults Who Experienced Maltreatment During Childhood. American Journal of Public Health, 98(6), 1094-100.  Retrieved June 27, 2008, from ABI/INFORM Global database. (Document ID: 1484187061).

Teicher, Martin H. (2002). Scars That Won’t Heal: The Neurobiology of Child Abuse. Scientific American, 286(3), 68-8.