Childhood Emotional Maltreatment: Impact on Cognition and the Brain

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When a child is often scolded or threatened by his parents (emotional abuse) and /or when a child is structurally ignored or isolated by his parents (emotional neglect) we call this childhood emotional maltreatment (CEM).

CEM is the most common form of child abuse, however, CEM is also the most hidden, underreported and least studied form of child abuse. An important reason for this may be because that the consequences of CEM are underestimated (e.g. ‘Sticks and Stones may break bones, but words will never hurt me’). However, my thesis shows that CEM is related with a persistent negative impact on cognition and the brain.

We discovered that individuals that report CEM show differential structure and function of a brain area (the medial prefrontal cortex) that is crucial for role in responding to stress and thinking about yourself. Individuals with CEM also showed more activity in an area that signals threat (the amygdala) which may represent a persistent vigilance towards the detection of threat from others. These brain changes may underlie our other findings that individuals with CEM think more negatively about themselves and others. Negative thoughts can evoke negative thoughts and in new situations, which reinforces more negative memories. Due to this process, emotionally abused individuals may be more vulnerable to develop a depressive and/or anxiety disorder.

Our findings warrant scientific and political investments to increase societal awareness about the detrimental impact of CEM on cognition and the brain. Increased societal knowledge will hopefully lead to better awareness, reports, and subsequent interventions for individuals with CEM.

Thesis