Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: September 2009

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


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.

Als, H., Duffy, F. H., McAnulty, G. B., Rivkin, M. J., Vajapeyam, S., Mulkern, R. V., Warfield, S. K., Huppi, P. S., Butler, S. C., Conneman, N., Fischer, C. & Eichenwald, E. C. (2004). Early experience alters brain function and structure. Pediatrics, 113, 846–57.
Bremner, J. D., Randall, P., Vermetten, E., Staib, L., Bronen, R. A., Mazure, C., Capelli, S.,McCarthy, G., Innis, R. B. & Charney, D. S. (1997). Magnetic resonance imaging-based measurement of hippocampal volume in posttraumatic stress disorder related to childhood physical and sexual abuse – a preliminary report. Biological Psychiatry, 41, 23–32.
Bellis, M. D., Keshavan, M. S., Clark, D. B., Casey, B. J., Giedd, J. N., Boring, A. M., Frustaci, K. & Ryan, N. D. (1999). A. E. Bennett Research Award. Developmental traumatology. Part II: Brain development. Biological Psychiatry, 451, 271–84.
Diamond, M. & Hopson, J. (1998). Magic trees of the mind: How to nurture your child's intelligence, creativity, and healthy emotions from birth through adolescence. New York: Dutton.
Duffy, F. H. (1994). The role of quantified electroencephalography in psychological research. In Dawson, G. & Fischer, K. W. (eds), Human behavior and the developing brain, 93–133. New York: Guilford.
Duffy, F. H., McAnulty, G. B. & Albert, M. S. (1996). Effects of age upon interhemispheric EEG coherence in normal adults. Neurobiology of Aging, 17, 587–99.
Duffy, F. H., McAnulty, G. B. & Waber, D. P. (1999). Auditory evoked responses to single tones and closely spaced tone pairs in children grouped by reading or matrices abilities. Clinical Electroencephalography, 30, 84–93.
Duffy, F. H., Valencia, I., McAnulty, G. B. & Waber, D. P. (2001). Auditory evoked response data reduction by PCA: Development of variables sensitive to reading disability. Clinical Electroencephalography, 32, 168–78.
Huttenlocher, P. R. (2002). Neural plasticity: The effects of environment on the development of the cerebral cortex. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Ito, Y., Teicher, M. H., Glod, C. A. & Ackerman, E. (1998). Preliminary evidence for aberrant cortical development in abused children: A quantitative EEG study. Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 10, 298–307.
Ito, Y., Teicher, M. H., Glod, C. A., Harper, D., Magnus, E. & Gelbard, H. A. (1993). Increased prevalence of electrophysiological abnormalities in children with psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 5, 401–8.
Livingstone, M., Rosen, G., Drislane, F. & Galaburda, A. M. (1991). Physiological and anatomical evidence for a magnocellular defect in developmental dyslexia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 88, 7943–7.
Schiffer, F., Teicher, M. H. & Papanicolaou, A. C. (1995). Evoked potential evidence for right brain activity during recall of traumatic memories. Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 7, 169–75.
Stein, M. B., Koverola, C., Hanna, C., Torchia, M. G. & McClarty, B. (1997). Hippocampal volume in women victimized by childhood sexual abuse. Psychological Medicine, 27, 951–9.
Teicher, M. (2000). Wounds that time won't heal: The neurobiology of child abuse. Cerebrum, 2(4), 50–67.
Teicher, M. H. (2002). Scars that won't heal: The neurobiology of child abuse. Scientific American, 286 (March), 68–75.
Teicher, M. H., Ito, Y. N., Glod, C. A., Andersen, S. L., Dumont, N. & Ackerman, E. (1997). Preliminary evidence for abnormal cortical development in physically and sexually abused children using EEG coherence and MRI. Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 821, 160–75.
Thatcher, R. W., Krause, P. J. & Hrybyk, M. (1986). Cortico-cortical associations and EEG coherence: A two-compartmental model. Electroencepholography and Clinical Neurophysiology, 64, 123–43.
Waber, D. P., Weiler, M. D., Bellinge, D. C., Marcus, D. J., Forbes, P. W., Wypij, D. & Wolff, P. H. (2000). Diminished motor timing control in children referred for diagnosis of learning problems. Developmental Neuropsychology, 17, 181–97.