Children exposed to family violence show the same pattern of activity in their brains as soldiers exposed to combat.

The functional MRI brain scan study was performed to investigate the impact of physical abuse and domestic violence on children. Scientists at UCL in collaboration with the Anna Freud Centre, found that exposure to family violence was associated with increased brain activity in two specific brain areas i.e the anterior insula and the amygdala, when children viewed pictures of angry faces.

Neural adaptations within these regions may help to explain why children exposed to family violence are at greater risk of developing anxiety problems in their later life.
The brains of soldiers exposed to  combat situations have shown the same pattern of increased activation in these two regions of the brain, that are associated with danger detection. The authors suggest that both soldiers and maltreated children  may haveve adapted to being 'hyper-aware' of threats in their environment.

Dr Eamon McCrory, who is the lead author of the UCL Division of Psychology and Language Sciences and the Anna Freud Center, said: "We are only now beginning to understand how child abuse influences the functioning of the brain's emotional systems. This research is important because it provides our First clues as to how regions in the child's brain may adapt to early experiences of abuse in the home.

Dr McCrory added: "All the children studied were healthy and none were suffering from a mental health problem. What we have shown is that exposure to family violence is associated with altered brain functioning in the absence of psychiatric symptoms and that these alterations may represent an underlying neural risk factor. We suggest these changes may be adaptive for the child in the short term but may increase longer term risk. "

In the study, which is published in the journal Current Biology, 43 children had their brains scanned using an fMRI scanner. 20 children who had been exposed to documented violence at home were compared to 23 matched peers who had not experienced family violence. The average age of the maltreated children was 12 years old and they had all been referred to local social services in London.

"Even though we know that maltreatment represents one of the most potent environmental risk factors associated with anxiety and depression, relatively little is known about how such adversity 'gets under the skin' and increases a child's later vulnerability.", said Dr McCrory.

"The next step for us is to try and understand how stable these changes are. Not every child exposed to family violence will go on to develop a mental health problem; many bounce back and lead successful lives. We want to know much more about those mechanisms that help some children become resilient. 

"Professor Peter Fonagy, who is Chief Executive of the Anna Freud Center and Professor of Psychology at UCL, said that, tDr McCrory's groundbreaking research has undoubtedly taken them an important step closer to understanding the devastation that exposing children to violence can leave in its wake. findings assured the traumatic effects these experiences have on brain development.

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  1. The study discovered that the exposed youngsters had a different reaction to furious expressions. The anterior insula and amygdala, two areas involved in danger perception, were more active in their brains. A similar trend in the brains of troops exposed to violent combat scenarios has been shown in earlier studies. According to the scans, youngsters who experience violence and veterans of conflict tune their brains to be hyperaware of environmental risk.

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