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  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: September 2009

Essay: The role of experience in brain development: adverse effects of childhood maltreatment

Summary

Connection: One of the most important generalizations in developmental neuroscience is that the brain shows remarkable plasticity in its development, with the plasticity typically greatest at early ages (Diamond & Hopson, 1998; Huttenlocher, 2002). One aspect of plasticity is change in the connectivity of different brain regions. Both biological factors and vivid experiences can powerfully shape brain connectivity and other aspects of brain development. Just as learning disorders may involve reduced connectivity of specific cortical regions, so maltreatment seems to reduce cortical connections, both within the left hemisphere and between hemispheres. Also it affects the functioning of other brain regions, especially in the left hemisphere. Thus the evidence suggests that early experience of maltreatment strongly shapes brain functioning. This essay thus indicates both: (a) that maltreatment can shape brain development and organization, including possibly the development of reading – a topic that is worthy of future research; and (b) that problems in connections between brain regions may be important in various kinds of behavior disorders. This essay also serves as a reminder that children's social histories have implications for their neuropsychological development.

The Editors

Childhood maltreatment has adverse effects on children's functioning and shapes their neural development (Teicher, 2000, 2002). Over the last several years we have been studying the effects of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and psychological trauma on development of the central nervous system (CNS) in children and adults. We have found that there are a number of vulnerable targets.

First, the left hemisphere seems to be disproportionately affected.

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