Childhood trauma such as neglectful parenting causes physical scarring to the brain and increases the risk of severe depression, a new study has found.
For the first time, scientists have linked changes in the structure of the brain both to traumatic early-years experiences and poor mental health in later life.
Published in the Lancet, the study found a “significant” link between adults who had experienced maltreatment as children with a smaller insular cortex, part of the brain believed to help regulate emotion.
It focused particularly on a phenomenon known as “limbic scarring”, which previous research has hinted is linked to stress.
It involved 110 patients admitted to hospital with major depressive disorder who were then monitored for relapses over the following two years.
They were subjected to a detailed childhood trauma questionnaire, which retrospectively assessed historical incidents of physical abuse, physical neglect, emotional abuse, emotional neglect and sexual abuse.
The patients were then given MRI brain scans, which looked for changes to brain structure.
Dr Nils Opel from the University of Münster, Germany, who led the research, said: “Given the impact of the insular cortex on brain functions such as emotional awareness, it’s possible that the changes we saw make patients less responsive to conventional treatments.
“Future psychiatric research should therefore explore how our findings could be translated into special attention, care and treatment that could improve patient outcomes.”
The findings suggest that the reduction in the area of the insular cortex due to limbic scarring could make a future relapse more likely, and that childhood maltreatment is one of the strongest risk factors for major depression.
All participants in the current study, aged 18 to 60 years, had been admitted to hospital following a diagnosis of major depression and were receiving inpatient treatment.