Sexual and Emotional Abuse Scar the Brain in Specific Ways

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Childhood emotional and sexual abuse mark women’s brains in distinct patterns — with emotional abuse affecting regions involved in self-awareness and sexual abuse affecting areas involved in genital sensation, according to new research. The study links specific types of abuse with symptoms experienced by many survivors later in life.

The research, which was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, imaged the brains of 51 women in Atlanta who were taking part in a larger project on the effects of early trauma. Twenty-eight of the participants had been seriously maltreated as children, suffering from various combinations of neglect and emotional, physical and sexual abuse. The other 23 experienced either no maltreatment or next to nothing. The women ranged in age from 18 to 45, but the average age was 27.

A standard questionnaire on childhood trauma was used to assess the women’s early-childhood experiences, and their brains were scanned to measure the thickness of various regions of the cortex. Cortical thickness is linked to brain development, with thicker regions generally suggesting healthier growth. Brains, like muscles, develop through use — so regions that have been “exercised” more tend to be bigger.

But abuse can interfere with development. To cope with overwhelming experiences of distress, the brain can alter patterns of signaling from the pathways involved, which can ultimately leave those regions underdeveloped from reduced input. The brain of a child who is raped, for example, may react by reducing the connectivity of the regions that were hurt.

“If abuse was of a sexual type, we saw changes in the somatosensory cortex, the area that processes input from the body to create sensations and perceptions,” says Jens Pruessner, associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal. Somatosensory areas create a map of the body on the brain, with each region processing sensation from specific body parts. As compared with nonabused women, “women who were sexually abused had thinning in the area where the genitalia were located,” he says.

Although the prevalence varies depending on the severity and the amount of abuse, many sexual-abuse survivors report sexual problems in adulthood, including reductions in desire and sensation; sometimes they suffer from chronic genital pain. “There are some studies suggesting that thinning of the cortex [in these regions] would be associated with a lowered pain threshold, so you would more easily perceive pain instead of touch from that area,” says Pruessner. Some of the women showed cortical thinning in regions associated with the face and mouth, which could result from abuse to those areas.

(MORE: Psychological Abuse: More Common, as Harmful as Other Child Maltreatment)

Emotional abuse left a different type of scar. Here, the changes were seen in regions associated with understanding and controlling emotions and recognizing and responding to the feelings of others. “We [saw thinning] in areas that have to do with self-awareness and emotional regulation, areas in the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobe, which typically show activation when people are asked to think about themselves or reflect on their emotions,” Pruessner says.

Emotional abuse can leave its victims prone to depression, moodiness and extreme or dulled emotional responsiveness, depending on the person and the particular circumstances. “As adults, [they have difficulty] reflecting on themselves and finding the right way to deal with emotions,” says Pruessner.

“If replicated, these data provide compelling evidence about the enduring structural effects on the brain as a function of early life experience,” Dr. Maria Oquendo, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, and her colleagues wrote in an editorial accompanying the study.

This study didn’t follow the women from childhood, so it can’t prove that the abuse caused the changes in these regions. It’s possible, for example, that thinning in these brain regions results from later avoidance of healthy experience — abstaining from sex even in a good relationship, for example — rather than from the initial abuse.

In both emotional and sexual abuse, a decrease in connectivity of regions that are overwhelmed by maltreatment may be interpreted as a self-protective response. But it can ultimately prove harmful because it interferes with subsequent healthy sensation and experience.

The changes seen were not small: Pruessner says if a region typically was 5 mm. thick on average, in abuse survivors it was just 3 mm. to 4 mm. “The effect size was quite significant,” he adds.

But that doesn’t mean that recovery is impossible. Most abuse survivors do not develop symptoms, in fact, and research shows increasingly that the brain can change dramatically when provided with the right type of support and emotional nourishment. Understanding what goes wrong during and after abuse, the researchers believe, will help them figure out how to make it right. “That is our long-term hope,” Pruessner says.

MORE: Abused Children May Get Unique Form of PTSD


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A motivating discussion is definitely worth comment. I believe that you should write more on this subject, it might not be a taboo matter but generally people don't speak about these topics. To the next! Many thanks!!

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I'm curious; Are there any plans to do a study on men?


I understand the above article but my abuse started after my father left my mother, sister, grandmother and I to fend for ourselves. He was doing illegal activities at the time so my mother told him to leave because her children's welfare was more important. Thereafter, my grades dropped dramatically, poor attendance, and low social skills emerged which was the result of bullying by boys in my class. Pulling my hair, gum in hair, insults, and pushing me down a flight of stairs during fire drill practice were the normal and something to look forward to. Then to top it off my mother would screw guys in my bed, so I'd have to sleep on pull out couch with the brother of the other guy who sexually molested during the night. Also, my neighbor sexually molested by closing off main escape route to have fun with me for a couple of hours. Eventually went home by grace of miracle, laid in tub for hours, crying, shocked, hurt and visibly shaken to the core. Another time was watching television, sitting on floor, to being physically attacked from behind and sexually molested for fun by another neighbor. As an adult, have been sexually molested again and repeated attempts to intimidate and cruel tactics continued. Now at 48 years old, am in therapy with schizoaffective disorder with severe depression and Dissociative Disorder. I am a female with a label that has severe issues with men. Thanks to these men I now detest and disgusted with them. Although, hopefully, my attitude will change with time.


please help me I to experienced multiple abuses and I thought I was alone. but now I see im not, im 16 and I am so cofussed angry and sad all the time and I cant find affordable therapy. is there a way I could talk to you?


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Does it say that this is the case for women specifically only because women were studied, so they don't know if they can say the same for men? If so, I think that should be clarified, as it can be easily misinterpreted as for sure the case only for women. The wording makes it sound like we know that to be true.

On another note, I find the stuff about the somatosensory stuff especially interesting. I'm a transgender man and very interested in discovering if the cause for sex dysphoria (discomfort and distress due to feelings of foreignness of sex characteristics) has to do with the brain essentially getting "mapped" for the body of the opposite sex, in much a similar way to Body Identity Integrity Disorder, where the brain ends up not mapping a limb, or phantom extra limbs, where the brain ends up mapping a third arm or leg, but in trans peoples' case, it'd be like an intersex condition where the brains map gets misaligned from the physical sex. And if we are able to look at the somatosensory cortex with enough detail that we know what parts are designated to which parts of the body, we must be able to look at that part of the brain in trans people and discover if this is truly the case. I hope this is studied.


We should not forget to consider the cases of abuse related to bullying, which occur both in school environment as much as the family environment, and even at work, at church and even in social networks, as has been much these days. The point is to try to control the occurrence and not focus on the remedy that has already occurred. We know that the issue is very complex and many variables, but we can somehow get a decrease of abuse in general. I suffered some psychological abuse and understand what it means. I have followed the guidelines of some Brazilian researchers like Urandir- more information about Urandir can be found here-, which I am grateful, that has guided me and helped me to overcome the inherent problems of these abuses.


“ the nonsense file”
I have never suffered from retirement blues. I was working in
various departments in Tamil nadu Government for 30 years. Such as
PWD, H & RW, and TWAD board, and 10 years in various private
organizations. I have met many who throughout their working life spent
a considerable amount of their time wondering what they would do after
retirement. And once they reach this landmark they fitter away their
time doing precisely nothing. But I am quite an expectation, I had
always looked forwarded for my retirement life and it has been th
most joy ones part of my life.
A doctor friend of mine advised me on my retirement
that I should keep myself engaged physically, spiritually and
mentally. I have taken this advise rather seriously. Before the rest
of the world wakes up I would have finished with three points on my
Doctor presentation, At the crack of down I would be up and about for
a leisurely stroll to a nearby church where I would pray. On my stroll
back I would generally ruminate o what I should write next column. The
rest of the day is spent on my ride activities, some of them utterly
I had splendid quarter of a century serving in the great
Tamil nadu Water supply and Drainage Board in various posts and
retired as a Assistant Executive Engineer. But I must admit
temporaramentally I was more suited to the roll of Civil Engineering
Consultant in a famous organization. There after I served in PSN
college of Engineering & Technology Tirunelveli District and Lord
Jegannath College of Engineering & Technology Kanyakumary District
under the control of the great PSN Group of Institutions. as a senior
Civil Engineering consultant. I loved this job even more for this
intellectual stimulation, and interaction with a few golden human
beings in the form of top management with young Engineering students,
good higher officials and colleagues. The last six years has the
finest. I may be work at the end of my life. “GOD IS GREAT” Finally I
pray to my GOD have a silent death before finishing my profession.



I was long time back, I was told one of fine evening. That I came into
the strange and crying. My mother looked me with love and gave me
feeding, since I had nothing inside and now that I had something I was
happy, content and my mother was happy, smiling I had nothing of me
and cold shivering. My father looked at me kindly and gave me clothing
I was so comfortable, that I started kicking and cooling and since
them I had everything that I cared for I had love, compassion,
consideration, a life full of joy. At the three score, a decade, a five and plus,
time is short One tends to be impatient, one is net that important More and more
possessive through not very pertinent Not willing to let go what one has with a right intent society
has either time and regard as its own life is fast. Time goes and my
student life in schools was very joys since my mother was my class
teacher and friends are my neighbors and colleges life is also very
joys with very nice friends and the fast life never comes once again
in my life.
1.Where there is love there is life." - Gandhi
I have married a sweet and very good government employed partner in my
Life.She is only the lady in my sweet dreams and she is also retied
from service as a Junior Assistant in judicial department.
I have two sons sweet, obedient and good educated professional young
Engineers and a daughter in law (LIKE MY OWN DAUGHTER) is very sweet,
Nice and good teacher and Engineer
However I am fully satisfied in my family. Now I am retied form
service as a Assistant Executive in Tamilnadu Water Supply and
Drainage Board.


My mother was an alcoholic and, as a boy, I was exposed to non-stop depravity and emotional abuse from age 12 until I escaped at 16. I have been in and out of psychotherapy for the last 35 years. Let no one suggest that child abusers are exclusively male or their victims exclusively female. Alcoholic parents of any gender should be termintaed.


what about  living in  war zone or occupied country

or living in poverty

or poor diet

or seeing violence done to others

or  living in overcrowded conditions

or living in a different country

or being shy or having poor body image

the study is to simplistic

and test group is too small,and what about ehnic or rich or poor


Abuse and other kinds of trauma takes many forms, and can impact us in deep and enduring ways. Halle Berry, for example, has commented about being abused as a child by her violent father, who also assaulted her mother, "I think I’ve spent my adult life dealing with the sense of low self-esteem that sort of implanted in me. Somehow I felt not worthy.” Many people make use of traumatic experiences in their creative work. - From my article Creative People and Trauma


Are there any studies being done yet on the survivors of the TTI? I've met enough survivors to feel like I see some trends...I'd love to find a way to get some scientific folks to either prove it or prove me wrong... (autoimmunity?)


Were the effects of childhood sexual abuse on men studied?


The lifetime mental, physical and emotional anguish that victims will suffer prove that accused pedophiles like Sylvain Kustyan, Ariel Castro and Jerry Sandusky must be stopped BEFORE they prey on our innocent children for years!  Kustyan, formerly of Tuscaloosa, AL and France, has been formally charged with two counts of 1st Degree Sodomy and Sexual Abuse of a ten-year-old little boy.  Kustyan is a fugitive from the law and is thought to be in Europe.  Since the recidivism rate among pedophiles is virtually 100% it is imperative that they be caught ASAP!