Neuropsychological Impact of Childhood Abuse/Trauma

July 29, 2011

Childhood maltreatment is associated with alterations of the biological stess systems (i.e., sympathetic nervous system, serotonin system, and limbic-hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis) which negatively effects brain development and causes delays in cognitive, language, and academic skills.Those who experienced childhood maltreatment had elevated PTSD, depression, personality disorders, conduct problems, attention difficulties, suicidal ideation, and substance abuse. As a result, there is an urgent need for early intervention and prevention efforts for children with histories of maltreatment.


Most brain development (i.e. myelination, synaptic organization) occures prenatally and in early childhood but maturation in the superior parietal and frontal cortical regions is most prominent between 7 and 16 years of age. Any trauma during this period has the potential to disrupt normal neurodevelopmental processes and may cause long-term negative consequences. '


The dysregulation of the neurobiological stress systems is thought to lead to PTSD and suppress the immune system.

  • 93% of children who witnessed domestic violence were diagnosed with PTSD
  • 34% of children with a history of sexual or physical abuse were diagnosed with PTSD
  • 58% of childlren with a history of physical and sexual abuse were diagnosed with PTSD

Negative brain changes due to childhood trauma has been linked to deficits in memory, learning; the storing and processing of spatial information; cognitive, motor, and sensory functions; and impede the ability to integrate information. Research also indicates that children who have experienced abuse also exhibit psychological distress, behavioral difficulties, and social problems. Many of these children also have below average IQ's and reading ability, and many were more than twice as likely to repeat a grade. Evidence also suggests that the aforementioned problems may persist into adulthood.


Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Treatment (TF-CBT) has shown significant promise in treating children who have experienced maltreatment/trauma.


Research suggests that the effects of PTSD and child maltreatment are preventable contributors to psychopathology. Sadly, though, clinical prevention andn treatment of maltreated children is markedly underfunded.





Watts-English, Fortson, Gibler, Hooper, & De Bellis, (2006). The psychobiology of maltreatment in childhood. Journal of Social Issues, 62, 717-736.


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