Can Words Damage the Brain?

20 October 2014

Interview with 

Dr Anne-Laura van Harmelen, Cambridge University


PET image of a human brain


Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you. True, or false? PET Image of the human brain showing energy consumptionThe effects of emotional abuse revealed...

Naked Scientist Amelia Perry spoke to Dr Anne-Laura van Harmelen on the effects of emotional maltreatment, including neglect, on the brains of children...

Hannah -   We'll be hearing later about growing up in a physically abusive environment.  But first, Naked Scientist Amelia Perry spoke to Dr. Anne-Laura van Harmelen on the effects of emotional maltreatment, including neglect, on the brains of children.

Anne-Laura -   So, my research actually suggests that sticks and stone may break your bones but words and neglect might hurt your brain.  The effects of emotional maltreatment on a later behaviour have been studied a lot and there's a whole cascade of negative consequences of emotional maltreatment.  So, people have more behavioural problems, they have more psychological problems, people are more anxious, more depressed.

Amelia -   What do your brain studies show us about maltreatment's effect on the actual brain, on their development?

Anne-Laura -   I have studied the effects of emotional maltreatment in childhood on the structure of the brain so the anatomy, and the functioning, so how the brain works in adults that reported emotional maltreatment.  I found that emotional maltreatment is related with a smaller part of the brain, the medial prefrontal cortex which is really important for emotion regulation, stress response, and it's also really, really important for self-referential thinking.  So, thinking about yourself, about others, and what's really interesting is that part of the brain is also more responsive when these individuals with emotional maltreatment are in a really negative interpersonal situation.  So, when they're being ostracised, they have more activation in that brain part which we think reflects more negative self and other referential thinking.  So, they're just dwelling on that negative experience and kind of ending up in a negative loop of negative thinking styles and negative cognitions.

Amelia -   So, the actual size of this region in the brain is actually decreased quite severely in these cases then with people suffering maltreatment.  But what do we know about brain development in early life?  Just how malleable are our brains in this vital period before adolescence?

Anne-Laura -   Well, the brain continues to develop well into adulthood and especially in childhood and adolescence, parts of the brain that are really important for emotion regulation and stress response are developing still.  So, they're also very sensitive to all kinds of influences from outside.  Increased stress in that developmental time-periods changes the amount of hormones that are present in the brain and those hormones can actually change the way the brain grows.  So, we know that stress during this developmental time-periods can be detrimental to brain development.

Hannah -   Anne-Laura van Harmelen speaking with Amelia Perry. 


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