How does childhood trauma affect the brain?
Originally Published on November 15, 2011 on
Written By
Jane Simington
PhD, Grief & Trauma Educator and Therapist

Healthy bonding and attachment are crucial to development from the first days of life. Well cared-for babies are able to process and integrate both positive and negative experiences. This helps them add adaptive learning to their repertoire of behaviors and attitudes allowing them to more readily manage the stressors in life. In addition, positive early experiences are crucial to optimal organization and development of right brain mediated functions.

When healthy attachment and bonding does not occur and/or if the child lives in a situation of neglect or abuse, these life circumstances will be processed through the right hemisphere as highly charged emotions and body sensations. Persistent fear and the child’s overall responses to that fear can alter the brain’s development, resulting in changes in physiological, emotional, behavioral, cognitive and social functioning.

The developing brain is very sensitive to stress and childhood trauma. Studies show that exposure to violence and unpredictable or chronic stress results in functional deficits. These include:

* Smaller than average cerebral cortex

* Decreased size of the hippocampus

* Decreased size of the corpus callosum

* Decreased GABA (neuromodulator required to calm the limbic system

* Underdevelopment of the orbito- frontal cortex

* Poor integration of the left and right hemispheres

An integrated brain requires connections between the hemispheres by the corpus callosum. The poor integration of the hemispheres and the underdevelopment of the orbito-frontal cortex account for such symptoms as difficulty with impulse control and emotional regulation, an inability to accurately recognize emotions in others, and to articulate one’s own emotions.

Chronic childhood trauma cause elevated levels of neuro-endocrine hormones. High levels of these hormones can damage to the hippocampus, which is critical for memory. The effects of early maltreatment on a child’s development are profound and long lasting. They interfere with attention and retention of information and thus affect the child’s learning abilities. They interfere with the child’s ability to form positive relationships, thus resulting in the child’s inability to move into their teens and adult years as a well adjusted human being

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Jane A. Simington, Ph D, is the owner of Taking Flight International Corporation and the developer of both the Trauma Recovery Certification Program and the Grief Support Certification Program. As a therapist and professor, she combines her professional background in both Nursing and Psychology, with her own experiences of grief, trauma, growth and transformation, along with an extensive knowledge of energy-transfer-healing, dream interpretation, art and guided imagery, to help and heal people of both genders, across the life span, and across cultures.

Dr. Simington is a frequent keynote and conference presenter, focusing on her research and clinical interests in change and transition, dying, grief and trauma, holistic health, personal empowerment, spiritual well-being and team building with spirit. Jane is committed to giving powerful and impactful presentations that leave her audiences feeling inspired and with a solid take- away message to put into immediate action.

Jane’s work is featured in her internationally sold books, Journey to the Sacred: Mending a Fractured Soul, and Setting the Captive Free, the booklet, Responding Soul to Soul, the award winning films, Listening to Soul Pain and Healing Soul Pain and on the CD’s, Journey to Healing, Releasing Ties That Bind, and Retrieving Lost Soul Parts.

Dr. Jane A. Simington is 2011 YWCA Woman of Distinction for Health & Medicine, Global Televisions Woman of Vision and profiled as the “Nurse to Know” in The Canadian Nurse Journal, June 2011.