Have you ever felt alone? As though you are struggling a little too hard to combat the overwhelming feelings of anxiety and sadness that others just don’t seem to be struggling with? Well, chances are you are not alone. New studies aimed at investigating the “brain-body” connection have determined how much the stresses we face when we are young influence us when we are adults. The results are alarming.
It is no surprise that the deleterious actions of our reckless youth have negative effects on our health as we age. Most people know that tanning in your twenties increases your chances of getting skin cancer in your forties. That smoking a pack of cigarettes a day as a teen can lead to premature lung failure. However, to what extent do the uncontrollable factors of our formative years play into our wellbeing later in life? In 1995, physicians Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda set out to determine just that. Using the term Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) to cover the chronic, unpredictable, and anxiety-inducing events faced by some children, Dr. Felitti and Dr. Anda began a vast study of 17,000 subjects comparing their amount of ACEs to their adult health records later in life. The ACEs considered in this study were those that go above and beyond the average, daily childhood and adolescent challenges. These included growing up with a depressed or alcoholic parent, losing a parent to divorce or other causes, enduring chronic humiliation, emotional neglect, and sexual or physical abuse.
Dr. Felitti and Dr. Anda discovered that approximately 67 percent of individuals had encountered one or more ACE. Unfortunately, the staggering statistics did not stop there. The physicians discovered a strong correlation between the number of ACEs a subject reported, and the amount of medical care the individual required as an adult. That is to say, the greater the number of ACEs, the greater the amount of medical care- and vice versa. The accuracy in which the number of the individuals’ ACEs predicted the level of their medical needs was extreme. According to the results, individuals who had faced 4 or more categories of ACEs were twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer as individuals who hadn’t experienced childhood adversity. Similarly, an ACE Score greater than or equal to 6 shortened an individual’s life span by almost 20 years. When focusing on gender-specific trends, the results did not favor the female subjects. For each ACE Score a woman had, her risk of being hospitalized with an autoimmune disorder increased by 20 percent. Lastly, someone with an ACE Score of 4 was 460 percent more likely to suffer from depression than someone who reported no ACEs.
Felitti and Anda’s findings speak volumes about the extent to which emotional and physical pain are intertwined. However, not until recently have scientists been able to search for answers on what occurs exactly when the stressful events of our childhood catch up with us as adults. The technological revolution of the past twenty years has taken research capabilities to new heights as scientists today are able to delve deep into the fascinating brain-body connection to explore such questions on a biochemical level. The next portion of this article will discuss seven ways in which early adversity physically alters our bodies.
Epigenetic Shifts. We function best when our level of hormones is within a very narrow frame. Unfortunately, most people do not have the luxury of going through life without any stress-inducing events that cause this delicate balance to shift. That is why our bodies have defense mechanisms in place to help bring our internal environment back into physiological balance. However, when we are constantly exposed to stressors, such as ACEs, our bodies struggle to return to equilibrium. The influx of stress hormones can ultimately impair a person’s ability to react appropriately to future stressful events- even those 30 years later. This cyclic pattern happens because of gene methylation, a process in which methyl groups (small chemical markers on hormones) attach to genes involved in regulating stress, and prevent these genes from doing their job. Without the proper functioning of our stress-regulatory genes, we are more likely to over-react to everyday stressors. This, in turn, predisposes us to a host of chronic conditions such as autoimmune disease, heart disease, cancer, and depression.
Size and Shape of the Brain. The hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for emotional processing, memory, and stress management. When a person is under constant stress, the brain releases a hormone that shrinks the size of the brain. Recent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies suggest that the higher an individual’s ACE Score, the less gray matter the individual has in other areas of the brain related to decision-making and self-regulatory skills and fear-processing skills. Therefore, children who have been exposed to chronic ACEs are more likely to become adults who over-react to even minor stressors.
Neural Pruning. Until recently, many scientists believed that the brain developed its vast abundance of neural and synaptic connections in a solely “use-it-or-lose-it” fashion. However, scientists have discovered non-neural brain cells that contribute to the overabundance of neural pruning that occurs in the brains of children. These cells, called microglia, are considered to be part of the immune system. They function as neural housekeepers by engulfing and digesting cellular debris. However, when a child experiences constant stress, microglial cells go into overdrive, and can “crank out neurochemicals that lead to inflammation,” says Margaret McCarthy, PhD, whose research team at the University of Maryland Medical Center studies brain development. McCarthy continues, “This below-the-radar state of chronic neuroinflammation can lead to changes that reset the tone of the brain for life.”
Telomeres. Children who experience trauma often appear more emotionally mature than their peers, but now scientists at Duke University, the University of California, San Francisco, and Brown University, have discovered that the apparent speedy maturation may occur on a cellular level as well. This is because of telomeres. Telomeres are the protective coverings that rest on the ends of our DNA strands, keeping the genome healthy and intact. Adults who reported higher levels of ACEs showed greater erosion in telomeres, decreasing the lifespan of their cells and making them more susceptible to diseases.
Default Mode Network. The human “default mode network” is a constantly operating, interconnecting system in our brains that unites areas related to memory and thought integration, helping us with daily decision-making. Additionally, it is the component in our brains that sifts through day-to-day information to decipher what should be stored and what can be disregarded based on our environmental needs. Adults with high ACE Scores do not have the same dense connectivity of this network as their low ACE Score counterparts, and therefore, struggle to behave appropriately to their surroundings.
Brain-Body Pathway. Recently, researchers have found that an elusive pathway made up of lymphatic vessels resides within the human brain, connecting the multifaceted organ to the immune system. This contradicts the past scientific belief that the human brain and the immune system are completely separate. This new found connection, discovered by researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, holds heavy weight for ACE research. Science now shows that the inflammatory chemicals released in response to stress are not just confined to the brain, but are actually moving throughout the body. This means that for the child experiencing mental anguish, physical suffering is present too.
Brain Connectivity. The brain relies on the strong, complex inter-workings of its parts in order to properly function. According to Ryan Herringa, neuropsychiatrist and assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, children and teens who had experienced chronic adverse events showed weaker neural connections between the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. Additionally, females displayed weaker connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, a connection responsible for controlling our emotional reactivity and perception of events as stressful or dangerous. These weakened neural connections in girls increase their risk for developing anxiety and depression by the time they reach adolescence. This research helps explain why women are twice more likely to suffer from mood disorders as males.
Felitti and Anda’s findings, combined with new research on the physical effects of early childhood trauma, have vast implications for the medical community that has long since maintained a dichotomy between “physical” health and “mental” health. If ACEs can be proven, perhaps those that contributed to the trauma can be held accountable in a court of law. Perhaps insurance companies will be required to cover mental health for their clients. Until then, there are small steps we can take to rectify the damage done by our troubled past. The brain is a constantly evolving organ, and just as you can harm with hate, you can remedy with love. Surround yourself and your peers with support and understanding, and we might see a shift towards a happier and healthier generation.