New neuroimaging research offers preliminary evidence that childhood maltreatment amplifies the impact of combat exposure trauma. The findings, published in the journal Military Psychology, suggest that abuse and neglect in childhood sensitizes stress-related brain regions to trauma later in life.
“Interactions between childhood and later-life trauma on the brain, particularly the brain’s response to stress, is an understudied research area,” said researcher Layla Banihashemi, an assistant professor and director of the Brain Body Stress Lab at the University of Pittsburgh.
“In this study of military veterans and service members, we wanted to examine the extent to which childhood maltreatment (i.e., abuse and neglect) may sensitize the brain’s response to stress after combat exposure trauma in adulthood. This study was a follow up to our previous work examining interactions between childhood maltreatment and combat exposure trauma on white matter, or the brain’s connections between regions.”
For their study, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to monitor the brain activity of 28 young adult male military veterans as they completed a mild cognitive stressor task. The veterans also completed scientific surveys about their recent post-traumatic stress symptoms, depressive symptoms, combat experiences, and childhood trauma.
Banihashemi and her colleagues found that childhood maltreatment moderated the effect of combat exposure on neural responses to the task in brain regions associated with cognitive functions, emotional memory, and stress responses.
“This pilot study of combat veterans provides preliminary evidence that childhood maltreatment and combat exposure trauma interact, such that individuals with higher maltreatment and higher combat exposure display different brain responses to a mild stress task,” Banihashemi explained.
“Our findings suggest that childhood maltreatment may sensitize anterior and midcingulate brain regions to later life trauma, which may have implications for physiological and behavioral responses to stress and for vulnerability to psychiatric disorders.”
The new research is limited by its small sample size and cross-sectional study design. But the findings help to lay the foundations for future research.
“Our goal was to describe our findings to inform future, larger studies,” Banihashemi told PsyPost. “Thus, our findings will need to be replicated and reproduced in larger samples. Further, it will be important to examine whether these findings can be generalized to female and other military veterans as well.”
The new findings are in line with previous research, which indicates that childhood maltreatment can produce a cascade of physiological and neurobiological changes that last into adulthood.
“Much research has shown that childhood maltreatment, trauma or adversity is associated with greater risk for many physical and mental health problems. Increasing knowledge and awareness of these risks and implementing parental stress reduction and emotion regulation techniques are important strategies to enhance children’s resilience as they develop,” Banihashemi said.
“For adults who have had traumatic experiences in childhood and adulthood, mindfulness training and therapies in which emotional coping skills are developed and emotional processing occurs (e.g., dialectical behavioral therapy) may improve outcomes within important brain regions.””
The study, “Interactions between childhood maltreatment and combat exposure trauma on stress-related activity within the cingulate cortex: a pilot study“, was authored by Layla Banihashemi, Meredith L. Wallace, Christine W. Peng, Mark M. Stinley, Anne Germain, and Ryan J. Herringa.