Traumatic experiences, especially those that occur in early childhood, can have long-lasting consequences for our mental well-being. For instance, even milder forms of childhood trauma are associated with a higher chance of developing stress-related mental illnesses such as major depression and anxiety disorders, particularly in people who are exposed to stressful life events in adulthood.
The research group, led by Dr. Erno Hermans at the Cognitive Neuroscience department of Radboudumc and Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, set out to examine the mechanisms behind this vulnerability and published the results in European Journal of Neuroscience on December 2, 2021.
The researchers exposed healthy volunteers with and without a self-reported history of mild childhood trauma to a "stress test", after which their brain activity was monitored using functional MRI. They found that those with a history of mild early-life stress had an alteration of neural activity and connectivity in brain regions associated with regulation of emotions.
Critically, however, this difference was not seen during "normal" brain functioning, but only became apparent after exposure to the "stress test". Mild childhood trauma was furthermore associated with blunted levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as was previously found for more severe childhood trauma.
Their findings reveal a mechanism by which long-term programming of stress-response systems can create enhanced sensitivity to stressors that persists into adulthood, and may provide an important clue as to why some people are more vulnerable to developing stress-related mental illnesses than others.
Wang, H., van Leeuwen, J.M.C., de Voogd, L.D., Verkes, R.J., Roozendaal, B., Fernández, G., & Hermans, E.J. Mild early-life stress exaggerates the impact of acute stress on corticolimbic resting-state functional connectivity. European Journal of Neuroscience; DOI: 10.1111/ejn.15538; PMID: 34812558
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