A popular commercial years ago showed an egg frying in a pan with the slogan, “This is your brain on drugs!” The graphic reference really stuck in my mind. In my last post, I quoted alarming statistics on the prevalence of trauma in children and teenagers. In this post, I discuss consequences of the impact of trauma to developing brains of these children. In other words, “This is a child’s brain on trauma!”
How trauma impacts parts of the brain
As we know, the brain is a very complex system—sort of like our own hard drive—that sustains and controls our functioning. It is divided into several key areas, and each can be affected by trauma. I will describe the general impact of trauma to the brain in hope to raise awareness of some changes that trauma causes in children.
The brainstem plays an important role in the regulation of the primitive functions of the body such as breathing, body temperature, blood pressure and heart rate. Trauma to the brainstem can impact the brain’s wiring to cause excessive reactions to threats. For example, a traumatized baby or child may be quickly aroused to a self-protective flight or fight response that will appear to be excessive.
The midbrain which is also known as the diencephalon or reptilian brain acts as a transmission center of the brain that are involved in controlling movement, equilibrium, appetite, facial sensation, hearing, respiration, salivation, taste and smell. Like with the brainstem, trauma can affect the wiring of the midbrain to create a scenario of greater arousal and intensity than in a non-traumatized brain.
The limbic system is the part of the brain that involves the experience and expression of emotion and is activated by the amygdala. A child who is traumatized might have more emotionally expressive or explosive behaviors. He or she may have trouble modulating those emotions or, in fact, expressing emotion at all. Some children whose limbic systems have suffered trauma become dissociative as a way to protect themselves during traumatic experiences.
The cortex (cerebrum) is located at the top of the brain. As the thinking part of the brain, it is the strategy center involved with higher functions such as sensory perception, spatial reasoning, conscious thought and language. In those children who are traumatized there is less cortical modulation and in some traumatized children, a smaller cortical area.
The amygdala is a small almond-sized structure within the limbic system that serves as the router or sentry to the brain. All incoming data from the child’s world passes through the amygdala where decisions are made to send the data to the brainstem, midbrain, limbic or cortex areas based on its storehouse of memories. It determines which part of the brain needs to be activated and which part will be in charge. When a child has fearful memories resulting from trauma, the amygdala will function far differently from the amygdala of a non-traumatized child. In the traumatized child, the amygdala will rapidly send strong messages of fear, with the slightest provocation, setting up a whole different chain of reactions.
The hippocampus serves as the computer chip of the brain. It transfers memories and stores them. It communicates with the amygdala to determine how the brain will respond to any given situation. Some research indicates that there is a reduced hippocampal volume in children who have experienced trauma, perhaps indicating that their memory bank system has been compromised as a result.
There is still so much about the brain that we do not know; therefore the information I have given is not complete. However, if you think through the consequences of trauma to each part of a child’s brain, it is clear that children who are traumatized have significant impact to their whole ability to think, react, reason and process.
In future posts, we will continue to discuss trauma’s serious consequences to our children.
Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network
Information taken from Enhancing Trauma Awareness, Diane Wagenhals, 2008. All rights reserved. Licensed materials.