Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Exposure to Family Violence and Brain Changes in Children--A Research Update

My last post highlighted the neural structures and processes involved in the development of parental alienation. This note summarizes some recent research about the connection between exposure to family violence and changes in brain functioning in children.

Researchers in the UK had noted that fMRI scans of combat veterans showed increased activation (when compared to veterans with NO combat exposure) in two areas of the brain: the amygdala and the anterior insula. These are two deep brain structures known to be active in the detection of threats, fear, survival responses, (amygdala) and of feelings of disgust or empathy, (anterior insula). These two deep brain structures have mirror neuron connections as well, leading to internal brain representation of external events, just like those noted in the post about parental alienation from last week.

This latest research compared the brains of two groups of children, neither of whom had any symptoms of mental health problems. One group of children came from families with documented histories of family violence; the other group of children had no such history. On a task that involved identifying faces as either male or female while in the fMRI scanner, the children with a history of "exposure to family violence" showed brain activation patterns similar to those of the veterans with combat experience--that is, activation of the two brain areas--the anterior insula and amygdala. The children with NO history of such exposure did NOT show similar activation on their fMRI scans.

This ground breaking research suggests that merely witnessing family violence leads to changes in children's brain function similar to those experienced by combat veterans. It is well known that post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, is characterized by "hyper-vigilance",  and the chronic over activation of the neural processes involved in detecting threats and reacting to them. PTSD sufferers experience chronic fear and anxiety as a result of the over-activation of these same two brain structures (and some others).

What is not currently known is how much "exposure" is needed to result in these neural changes, nor why some children seem to avoid the long term consequences of anxiety and hypervigilance and distrust that other children experience from their exposure to family violence.

What is clear, even at this early stage, is that children are highly susceptible to measurable changes in brain function from exposure to family violence. The implications for family lawyers and courts would seem to include:

1. Children don't have to be physically injured by family violence to be adversely affected--just witnessing family violence is sufficient to cause adverse brain effects.
2. Intervention in escalating family violence at the early stages and removing potential for children being exposed to such scenes can prevent the emergence of those changes in brain function that increase the risks of development of anxiety  and other maladies.
3. Leaving divorcing spouses together in the same house raises these risks for children since other divorce research has documented that nearly 100% of divorces involve at least one episode of physical violence between spouses. It is in the best interests of the children that their exposure to family violence be prevented.