New research has revealed that exposure to common family problems during childhood and early adolescence affects brain development, which could lead to mental health issues in later life.
The study led by Dr Nicholas Walsh, lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of East Anglia, used brain imaging technology to scan teenagers aged 17-19. It found that those who experienced mild to moderate family difficulties between birth and 11 years of age had developed a smaller cerebellum, an area of the brain associated with skill learning, stress regulation and sensory-motor control. The researchers also suggest that a smaller cerebellum may be a risk indicator of psychiatric disease later in life, as it is consistently found to be smaller in virtually all psychiatric illnesses.
Previous studies have focused on the effects of severe neglect, abuse and maltreatment in childhood on brain development. However the aim of this research was to determine the impact, in currently healthy teenagers, of exposure to more common but relatively chronic forms of ‘family-focused’ problems. These could include significant arguments or tension between parents, lack of affection or communication between family members, physical or emotional abuse, and events which had a practical impact on daily family life and might have resulted in health, housing or school problems.
Dr Walsh, from UEA’s School of Psychology, said: “These findings are important because exposure to adversities in childhood and adolescence is the biggest risk factor for later psychiatric disease. Also, psychiatric illnesses are a huge public health problem and the biggest cause of disability in the world.