Abused Children's Brains Can Better Regulate Emotions

By R. Siva Kumar - 23 Aug '15 18:07PM

Children living in environments that abuse or expose them to various traumas tend to get more emotional than their peers.

However, a University of Washington-led team of researchers examined what happens to brains of maltreated adolescents who looked at emotional images. Hearteningly, with some guidance, maltreated children could easily regulate their emotions.

"They were just as able to modulate their emotional responses when they were taught strategies for doing so," said Kate McLaughlin, a UW assistant professor of psychology and the study's lead author. "That's very encouraging."

Emotional treatment control are associated with mental disorders among maltreated children. Research shows how the brains of these children respond immediately to negative facial emotions.

The study, which has been published in the August 20 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, is probably the first to see whether maltreatment affects the regions in the brain that are involved in emotion control.

To 42 boys and girls age 13 to 19, half of whom had been "physically and/or sexually abused", the researchers used magnetic resonance imaging in order to track their brain activity, even as they were shown some photographs.

Hence, the teens were exposed to neutral, positive and negative images and told to let their emotions unfold naturally. The neutral images featured outdoor scenes or objects, "such as a coffee cup or a pair of glasses, while the positive and negative images depicted scenarios showing people with different facial expressions -- a smiling family engaged in a fun activity, for example, or two people arguing."

It all imaged real-world emotional situations, McLaughlin said.

"How much do you react when something emotional happens? Some people have really strong emotional reactions. Some people have much more muted responses," said McLaughlin, director of the UW's Stress & Development Laboratory.

"The question is, do we see differences in the brain in terms of how it responds to emotional information in kids who have been maltreated?"

It certainly does! While the positive images created no difference in brain activities, the negative images showed heightened activity in brain regions such as the amygdala, which processes emotions and exhibits environmental threats compared to the control group.

McLaughlin said that in a chronically dangerous environment the brain is on "heightened alert", always on the search for threats from everywhere.

In another exercise, participants were shown more images and asked to enhance their emotional responses to positive images and then scale them back on seeing the negative ones with techniques using cognitive reappraisal. That meant thinking about a situation differently in order to control the emotional response.

Participants thought about the negative images so that they could become"psychologically more distant". For instance, they thought that the people in the photos were strangers or that the scene was unreal.

The positive cues made them imagine that they contributed to the happy scene or that it involved people they knew.

Again, the negative photos made the abused teens' brains draw from the prefrontal cortex to tamp down their feelings.

Encouragingly, the maltreated teens were able to manage the activity in the amygdala as well as those who had no history of ill-treatment. Hence, with the right techniques, maltreated children can manage their emotional reactions to the real world.

Hence, cognitive reappraisal, which is often used by the children to manage their emotions, is a core technique used in "trauma-focused treatments" for children.

Maltreated children are perhaps "more resilient and adaptable" than previously thought.

"It seems that they are able to cope effectively, even in very stimulating emotional situations, if they're taught strategies for doing so," McKaughlin said. "We think the findings are really promising."

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