Monday, June 11, 2012

Research Update: Stress is Connected to Decreased Brain Volumes in Children

A new study published this month in the Journal of Neuroscience has profound implications for children of divorce. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Richard Davidson and Seth Pollak, examined the brains of a group of children using fMRI and compiled a detailed stressful life events history from their parents. Examining the brain scans revealed that both white matter (the connections between brain areas) and the gray matter (the cells that 'do the math') were LOWER in volume in children with greater levels of stress in their life history. This finding was particularly evident in the anterior cingulate portion of pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain in the very front of the head that is responsible for "working memory". (Journal of Neuroscience , June 6, 2012)

As we know, divorce is a process and not an event. The period of time leading up to the divorce is a very stressful time for families, and the divorce process itself is particularly difficult for children. Children of divorce are frequently observed to be "absent minded" or "distracted" during and after the divorce, and this new research documents the physical changes that are taking place in the brains of these children that are evident in their behavior, particularly changes in their school performance.  The decreases in the volume of both white and gray matter in the brain found in these children with more stressful life histories now provides a neuroscience foundation for the findings of the psychological research on children of divorce. Divorce is one of the most stressful life events for children but it certainly isn't the only one.  Ongoing family violence, substance abuse, and neglect can all have deleterious effects on the brain development of young children, and profound effects on their emotional and intellectual, as well as social development.

The good news is that much of the new research on brain development is also finding that the brains of both children and adults is remarkably plastic, that is, capable of remarkable recovery and re-growth of new tissue when the conditions improve.  The challenge for professionals involved in resolving family disputes and working "in the best interest of the children" is to find solutions that lead to rapid reductions in the stress levels of the family so that the children's brains can begin to grow again and regain the volumes of both gray and white matter that characterize healthy growing brains. For some families that means therapy and reconciliation for the parents that leads to a new pattern of better communication and lower stress levels.

For other families, when untreated mental illness or personality disorders in one or both parents make new behavior patterns in the family unlikely, a quick and low conflict divorce may be the avenue to lower stress that will allow the children to recover their lost brain function most quickly. At this point, we don't know how much stress for how long will lead to permanent and irreversible brain changes in children of divorce, but as this new line of brain scan-driven research develops, we will know more. Stay tuned.

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