MADISON - Even the subtlest hints of anger or hostility in theirenvironment sets physically abused children on prolonged 'alert', evenif a conflict has nothing to do with them.
The tendency to stay attentive of nearby discord is probably a naturalform of self-preservation in children who routinely face aggression.But it may also explain why abused children are often so distracted atschool, write researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, inthe journal Child Development (September 14, 2005).
Led by Seth Pollak, a professor of psychology, psychiatry andpediatrics, the UW-Madison team tracked biological markers in 11 abusedfour and five-year olds who play a computer game in one room whensuddenly a clearly audible, heated argument erupts between studentsnext door.
Unbeknownst to the children, the "argument"- over an incompletehomework assignment - was actually a scripted dialogue performed by twoactors.
Both abused and non-abused children initially displayed signs ofemotional arousal-such as sweaty palms and decelerated heart rates--inreaction to the angry voices in the next room. Heart rates oftendecelerate prior to a "fight or flight" response, says Pollak, who isalso a researcher at the UW-Madison Waisman Center for HumanDevelopment.
But though heart rates of non-abused subjects soon rose back to normallevels, heart rates in the abused group remained low-the abusedchildren could not completely break their attention away from thenext-door argument, even when it ended peacefully.
"What's really interesting about this experiment is that theabused children were taking their attention resources and redeployingthem into something that had nothing to do with the children at all,"says Pollak. "That provides an important clue about why these childrenare having interpersonal problems."
The UW-Madison work builds on past experiments in which Pollak hasaimed to understand the developmental mechanisms that may lead abusevictims to adopt unhealthy behaviors later in life, such as aggression,social anxiety and addictions. "Several psychologists had put forwardsome very sophisticated theories about the outcomes of child abuse butno one had offered any brain-based cognitive models to explain whythose outcomes occur," Pollak says.
Consequently, in 1999, Pollak showed that electrical brain activityspikes dramatically when abused children view digital images of angryfaces. That result was not too surprising, he says. "Obviously, abusedchildren's brains are doing exactly what they should be doing - theyare learning to cope with their situation."
The latest work explores whether abused children react similarly toanger in real life situations, or in this case, experimentalsimulations of the real world. Pollak says the next step will be todiscern exactly which neural systems and brain regions are mostaffected after physical abuse. "Knowing this specificity could help usfigure out ways to eventually intervene in tailored ways."
Other study co-authors included undergraduate student Shira Verdi (nowa UW-Madison graduate student in social work), psychology researchspecialist Anna Bechner and assistant professor of psychology JohnCurtin.
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