Hardships during youth may alter brain development

Facing hardships in childhood could alter brain development, according to international researchers who analysed data from previous studies of 12,000 young teens. The team found that higher levels of family conflict was associated with increased connections between brain structures overall, while lower socioeconomic status and perceived neighbourhood safety was associated with weaker brain connectivity over time. These findings indicate that facing adversity as a child could potentially have different kinds of neurological impacts depending on the type of experiences, it and may affect mental health in adulthood, according to the team.

Funder: The authors declare no competing interests. Ms Ayla Pollmann has been funded through 28 a PhD research studentship from the Department of Psychology, King’s College London, and the Cusanuswerk. Mr Remo Sasso was funded by Intelligent Games and Games Intelligence CDT (IGGI;EP/S022325/1). Dr Delia Fuhrmann and Dr Kathryn Bates were supported by an ESRC Secondary Data Analysis Initiative Grant (ES/T015861/1). For the purposes of open access, the author has applied a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence to any Accepted Author Manuscript version arising from this submission.

Media release

From: Society for Neuroscience

Adversity during youth alters brain development

Neuroscientists shed light on the complex and multifaceted relationship between adversity during early adolescence and the developing brain. 

Experiencing adversity before the age of 18 is unfortunately quite common. Nearly two thirds of young people experience at least one instance of adversity, be it abuse, neglect, or household dysfunction. Adverse childhood experiences largely weaken communication between brain structures, which can also be stated as a reduction of brain connectivity. This increases the likelihood of mental health issues in adulthood. However, the impact of adversity experienced during adolescence on the brain is less explored, and whether it alters brain connectivity is unknown. Pollman and colleagues explored this by analyzing data from a prior study of 12,000 young adolescents.

They assessed whether brain connectivity is changed following distinct kinds of adversity, including family conflict, socioeconomic status, and perceived neighborhood safety. The researchers found that higher levels of family conflict increased brain connectivity overall, while lower socioeconomic status and perceived neighborhood safety weakened brain connectivity over time. These data demonstrate that the neurological impact of social adversity during adolescence is complex and multifaceted. Taken together with what is known in the field, this work reveals that differences between the effects of adversity in adolescence versus childhood exist, thus highlighting the need for further investigation on how social experiences occurring after childhood alter brain development.

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