Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Psychologist Detects Brain-Activity Changes In Maltreated Kids

Date:
April 5, 1999
Source:
University Of Wisconsin-Madison
Summary:
Learning to spot signs of anger early, before they lead to trouble, becomes a finely honed survival skill for children who have suffered severe abuse. A new study by a University of Wisconsin-Madison psychologist suggests that this survival skill may actually trigger biological changes, altering the way the brain processes anger.

MADISON - Learning to spot signs of anger early, before they lead to trouble, becomes a finely honed survival skill for children who have suffered severe abuse.

Related Articles


A new study by a University of Wisconsin-Madison psychologist suggests that this survival skill may actually trigger biological changes, altering the way the brain processes anger.

Seth Pollak, assistant professor of psychology and psychiatry and Waisman Center investigator, says the findings shed new light on the question of why traumatic early-life experiences cause so many serious problems throughout adolescence and adulthood. The research also could suggest better treatment for overcoming past abuse.

"Why does something that happens to someone when they're 2, 3 or 4 years old have such pervasive developmental effects?" asks Pollak. "This study is one way to find some of the underlying developmental changes caused by traumatic events."

Pollak's study, which he presented to the Society for Psychophysiological Research last fall, looked at differences in brain electrical activity between children who have suffered specific forms of child abuse and children who have not suffered maltreatment. The study involved 28 maltreated children and 14 children who were in the control group, all ages 7-11. The children and their parents volunteered to participate after being referred by county and state child protective agencies.

In his Child Emotion Research Laboratory, Pollak developed a harmless experiment that children treat as a game, where they are shown pictures of a series of faces and asked to look for a specific emotion. If they are asked to look for happy faces, for example, they will press a button every time such a face appears on the screen. The range of faces in the pictures are happy, angry and fearful.

During the game, children wear a cap with tiny receptors that can measure their brain electrical activity. The response measured is called an Event Related Potential (ERP), which is a sharp increase in electrical activity in the brain that's associated with a specific stimulus.

In this case, the stimulus is recognizing a facial expression the children were specifically asked to look for. Pollak was measuring a response commonly called "the aha! effect," because the brain gives off a sudden burst of electrical activity when that recognition occurs.

What was striking about the results, says Pollak, is the numbers were virtually identical for both groups of children when they responded to happy and fearful faces. But with angry faces, the children who were maltreated produced dramatically stronger and longer-lasting responses.

Considering the dynamics of an abusive home, Pollak says that difference makes sense. "Anger becomes a very salient cue that something in the child's environment is about to change," he says. "In fact, these children's survival and coping may well depend on their ability to detect this change early."

But this vigilance toward anger, once a sensible way of adapting to a threat, may later become an emotional albatross. For example, ordinary social events such as getting bumped on the playground, hearing an ambiguous comment or catching a cross look may be perceived as threatening.

One of the potential long-term effects of child abuse is in robbing victims of an ability to form healthy relationships with peers and other adults. Pollak says decades of research has described these problems, but few studies have targeted the underlying mechanisms that cause them.

Although more research is needed, Pollak says the findings suggest that traditional therapies may not stress the right issues. An educational approach could help people better decode emotional situations and make healthy adjustments to theirperception of comfortable or threatening environments. Having child-abuse victims focus on their reactions in real-world situations could produce positive results.

On a more fundamental level, Pollak's research is generating excitement because it calls into question the idea that emotions are biologically hard-wired in the brain. Much evidence suggests that the core emotions - happiness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, and sadness - emerge in orderly and specific ways, as if by genetic blueprint.

Pollak says the different emotional makeup of children who suffered abuse suggests that the biological framework of emotions also can be molded by a child's experience with the world.

Pollak's work, which is supported by the National Institute of Mental Health and the UW-Madison Graduate School, focuses on a persistent public problem. In 1995, more than 1.5 million U.S. children were victims of abuse, and more than half of that group was younger than age 7.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University Of Wisconsin-Madison. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

University Of Wisconsin-Madison. "Psychologist Detects Brain-Activity Changes In Maltreated Kids." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 April 1999. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1999/04/990405065725.htm>.
University Of Wisconsin-Madison. (1999, April 5). Psychologist Detects Brain-Activity Changes In Maltreated Kids. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 26, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1999/04/990405065725.htm
University Of Wisconsin-Madison. "Psychologist Detects Brain-Activity Changes In Maltreated Kids." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1999/04/990405065725.htm (accessed November 26, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Mind & Brain News

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Are Female Bosses More Likely To Be Depressed?

Are Female Bosses More Likely To Be Depressed?

Newsy (Nov. 24, 2014) — A new study links greater authority with increased depressive symptoms among women in the workplace. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Winter Can Cause Depression — Here's How To Combat It

Winter Can Cause Depression — Here's How To Combat It

Newsy (Nov. 23, 2014) — Millions of American suffer from seasonal depression every year. It can lead to adverse health effects, but there are ways to ease symptoms. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Could Your Genes Be The Reason You're Single?

Could Your Genes Be The Reason You're Single?

Newsy (Nov. 21, 2014) — Researchers in Beijing discovered a gene called 5-HTA1, and carriers are reportedly 20 percent more likely to be single. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Milestone Birthdays Can Bring Existential Crisis, Study Says

Milestone Birthdays Can Bring Existential Crisis, Study Says

Newsy (Nov. 21, 2014) — Researchers find that as people approach new decades in their lives they make bigger life decisions. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories

 

Health & Medicine

Mind & Brain

Living & Well

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins