Brain development in children may be affected by stress. Stress may alter the growth of a specific part of the brain and its function.
“There has been a lot of work in animals linking both acute and chronic stress to changes in a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in complex cognitive abilities like holding on to important information for quick recall and use,” says Jamie Hanson, a University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology graduate student. “We have now found similar associations in humans, and found that more exposure to stress is related to more issues with certain kinds of cognitive processes.”
Stressed out children registered lower scores
Children who live with intense and lasting stress or stressful events registered lower scores on test of what the researchers refer to as spatial working memory. They also had more trouble with short term memory.
Brain scans of these individuals revealed that the anterior cingulate, a part of the prefrontal cortex which plays a role in spatial working memory, takes up less space in children with greater exposure to stress.
“These are subtle differences, but differences related to important cognitive abilities,” Hanson explained. “We’re trying to argue that stress permanently scars your brain. We don’t know if and how it is that stress affects the brain. We only have a snapshot – one MRI scan of each subject – and at this point we don’t understand whether this is just a delay in development or a lasting difference. It could be that because the brain is very plastic, very able to change that children who have experienced a great deal of stress catch up in these areas.”