For children, stress can go a long way. A little bit provides a platform for learning, adapting and coping. But a lot of it – chronic, toxic stress like poverty, neglect and physical abuse – can have lasting negative impacts.
A team of researchers at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison recently showed these kinds of stressors, experienced in early life, might be changing the parts of developing children’s brains responsible for learning, memory and the processing of stress and emotion. These changes may be tied to negative impacts on behavior, health, employment and even the choice of romantic partners later in life.
The study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, could be important for public policy leaders, economists and epidemiologists, among others, says study lead author and recent UW Ph.D. graduate Jamie Hanson.
“We haven’t really understood why things that happen when you’re 2, 3, 4 years old stay with you and have a lasting impact,” says Seth Pollak, co-leader of the study and UW–Madison professor of psychology.
Yet, early life stress has been tied before to depression, anxiety, heart disease, cancer, and a lack of educational and employment success, says Pollak, who is also director of the UW Waisman Center’s Child Emotion Research Laboratory.
“Given how costly these early stressful experiences are for society… unless we understand what part of the brain is affected, we won’t be able to tailor something to do about it,” he says.
For the study, the team recruited 128 children around age 12 who had experienced either physical abuse, neglect early in life or came from low socioeconomic status households.