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A new study out of U.C. Irvine by neurologist Dr. Tallie Z. Baram has found that caressing and other sensory input triggers activity in a baby’s developing brain that improves cognitive function and builds resilience to stress.

In a study published earlier this year in The Journal of Neuroscience, Baram and colleagues identified how sensory stimuli from maternal care can modify genes that control a key messenger of stress called corticotropin-releasing hormone.

Dr. Baram’s earlier work has shown that excessive amounts of CRH in the brain’s primary learning and memory center led to the disintegration of dendritic spines, branchlike structures on neurons. Dendritic spines facilitate the sending and receiving of messages among brain cells and the collection and storage of memories.

“Communication among brain cells is the foundation of cognitive processes such as learning and memory,” says Baram, the Danette Shepard Chair in Neurological Sciences. “In several brain disorders where learning and similar thought processes are abnormal, dendritic spines have been found to be reduced in density or poorly developed.

“Because an infant’s brain is still building connections in these communication zones, large blasts or long-term amounts of stress can permanently limit full development, increasing the risk of anxiety, depression and dementia later in life.”

Essentially, Dr. Baram and her colleagues’ work stands for the proposition that a human brain is fundamentally influenced by the environment early in life, especially by maternal care.

See story at Psychorg.com:

http://www.physorg.com/news192209628.html

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I’ve just found out that the brilliant and amazing Alice Miller died on April 14, 2010 at the age of 87. She was a psychotherapist, a prolific writer, and a devoted champion of children’s rights, working throughout her life to spread awareness of the effects of child abuse.

Here is a video message she put out a few years back:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2hF2ujCeFw

and here is a link to her website:

http://www.alice-miller.com/index_en.php

I attended the Child Abuse Symposium in Santa Clara County, California last Friday and heard a highly effective and important presentation by Dr. John Stirling, Director of the Center for Child Protection at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center and Medical Director of Santa Clara County’s Children Shelter.

Dr. Stirling presented the findings of the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study, a study that has been out for years, which shows a direct link between child mistreatment and adult health and well-being.

Here is a synopsis of the primary findings of the ACE  Study performed by Dr. Vincent Felitti. Fundamentally, the study found that childhood adversity has a direct correlation with adult disfunction and poor health.

Please read the synopsis of this important study:

http://xnet.kp.org/permanentejournal/winter02/goldtolead.html

Researchers at the School of Medicine and the Trinity Institute for Neuroscience at the Trinity College Dublin have shown that child abuse leads to negative structural brain changes including an increased susceptibility to depression:

http://www.upi.com/Health_News/2010/02/26/Child-abuse-can-cause-brain-changes/UPI-24541267212440/

Many people believe that if a child is too young to remember wrongs done to the child, that it doesn’t matter. A number of them harm innocent children and babies in misguided attempts to relieve their own pain.

However, many recent studies have led to significant new evidence showing that a child’s brain and body are damaged for life when that child is mistreated, even where the mistreatment happened when the child was too young to remember it.

Here is a brief article about a recent study showing that childhood abuse damages the DNA of the victim and leads to difficulties in stress regulation due to actual physiological damage in the body.

http://discovermagazine.com/2010/jan-feb/061

The benefits of breastfeeding cannot be overemphasized. Numerous studies show that breastfeeding not only improves immune function, reduces life-long disease, and increases IQ, it also helps prevent abuse and neglect due to the mothering hormones it releases. See UNICEF UK Baby Friendly Initiative Statement On New Breastfeeding, January 7, 2010, and UQ Research Finds the Mum Bud Bond May Reduce Neglect, The University of Queensland Australia News, December 9, 2009.

It appears that the mother’s body was created with built-in mechanisms to support the her healthy and positive rearing of infants to create physically and emotionally healthy adults. Yet human beings routinely breach this bond and create circumstances of physical and/or emotional abuse and neglect.

Researchers have found that the incidence of child maltreatment, including abuse or neglect, is higher in migraine patients. They’ve also found that migraine sufferers reporting childhood abuse have higher occurrence of comorbid pain conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), fibromyalgia (FM), interstitial cystitis (IC), and arthritis. See details in this Science Daily article:

Abuse in Childhood Linked to Migraine and Other Pain Disorders, Science Daily, January 6, 2010.

The following is from an article by Mary Katherine Armstrong, “Child Abuse, Shame, Rage and Violence”, (Journal of Psychohistory, Summer 2003):

Dr. Daniel Gottlieb Moritz Schreber was a prominent German doctor who set himself up as an authority on child psychology. In 1858 his books on child rearing were so popular with German parents, that some of them went through forty printings. Of course, the parents who bought the books did not even remotely suspect that they were purchasing manuals on how to expose their children to a systematic form of torture with long term effects.

Dr. Shreber’s psychology started with the newborn baby who should be drilled from the very first day to obey and refrain from crying. Master the crying baby through frightening it, and “you will be master of the child forever. From then on, a glance, a word, a single threatening gesture will be sufficient to control the child” (Miller, 1990, p.10). As a result of admonitions to avoid physical demonstrations such as stroking, cuddling and kissing, all these German infants suffered from the absence of direct, loving contact with their parents. Today’s extensive research into attachment theory makes clear the damage done by such unattuned parenting.

Germany was the only nation which gave precise details on how to discipline babies through frightening them. German children were reared according to detailed rules, designed to produce children who were cut off from their own ability to think things through and come to satisfactory personal decisions. Humiliation, these child rearing experts pronounced, is the key to producing adults who will always obey authority figures and never act in accordance with their own will. Alice Miller tell us that dependence on authority, plus intense shaming of children, produced the generation of Germans who obediently followed Hitler into the Second World War and found their emotional release in carrying out atrocities. She says:

Of course children in other countries have been and still are mistreated in the name of upbringing and care-giving, but hardly already as babies and hardly with the systematic thoroughness characteristic of the Prussian pedagogy. In the two generations before Hitler’s rise to power, the implementation of this method was brought to a high degree of perfection in Germany (1998, p.574).

While physical violence and sexual cruelty against children are to many of us clearly identifiable as abuse, emotional abuse can be harder to recognize. Certainly, most of us would not defend the parent who regularly hurls the label “stupid” at his child, but there are many forms of emotional abuse that are much more subtle.

Consider this relatively thorough overview of several studied forms of emotional abuse: Types of Emotional Abuse, Child Abuse Effects, Darlene Barriere.  With examples of each, Ms. Barriere lists six types of emotional abuse: rejecting, isolatingignoringcorruptingexploiting, and terrorizing.

Parents may hurt a child by leaving him or her alone for long periods of time – isolating/ignoring/rejecting. Several studies have shown that children in orphanages who are left in cribs for long periods of time, while having their basic needs provided for and not subjected to violence, nonetheless end up with mental and physical disorders and stunted development, in contrast with babies and children who are loved and provided with attention and affection. (Example MacArthur Foundation-financed study described in Boston Globe Article, Study on orphans sees benefit in family care, Nov. 11, 2006, The Boston Globe, showing lowered IQ in babies raised in orphanages). Ignoring one’s responsibility to show affection and positive attention to a child entrusted by nature to one’s care does have consequences.

Consider this study published by the Americal Psychological Association:  Social Exclusion Impairs Self-Regulation, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2005, Vol. 88, No. 4, 589–604, finding that being excluded or rejected caused decrements in self-regulation.

Available studies lead to the conclusion that when parent causes a child feelings of isolation (through means such as leaving the child alone for lengthy periods of time, keeping the child from social activities, and/or treating the child differently than other children to create circumstances of exclusion), this creates negative consequences in the child’s brain functioning. 

Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D. is a clinician and researcher in children’s mental health and the neurosciences, and an internationally-recognized authority on children in crisis, who has served as a consultant and expert witness on many high-profile incidents involving traumatized children, including the Columbine High School Massacre, the Oaklahoma City bombing, and the Waco seige.  He has written extensively on the subject of the brain’s response to trauma and abuse during childhood and its impact on the brain of the adult who that child becomes.

Consider this analysis from Dr. Perry and see the full article by clicking the citation link after the quote:

What we are as adults is the product of the world we experienced as children. The way a society functions is a reflection of the childrearing practices of that society. Today, we reap what we have sown. Despite the well-documented critical nature of early life experiences, we dedicate few resources to this time of life. We do not educate our children about development, parenting or about the impact of neglect and trauma on children. As a society we put more value on requiring hours of formal training to drive a car than we do on any formal training in childrearing.

In order to prevent the development of impaired children, we need to dedicate resources of time, energy and money to the complex problems related to child maltreatment. We need to understand the indelible relationship between early life experiences and cognitive, social, emotional, and physical health. Providing enriching cognitive, emotional, social and physical experiences in childhood could transform our culture. But before our society can choose to provide these experiences, it must be educated about what we now know regarding child development. Education of the public must be coupled with the continuing generation of data regarding the impact of both positive and negative experiences on the development of children. All of this must be paired with the implementation and testing of programs dedicated to enrich the lives of children and families and programs to provide early identification of, and proactive intervention for, at-risk children and families. [emphasis added] Perry, B.D. and Marcellus, J.E.  (1997) The Impact of Abuse and Neglect on the Developing Brain.  Colleagues for Children. 7: 1-4, Missouri Chapter of the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse.