Maltreatment in the early years can impact in adulthood
The Sector > Research > Maltreatment in early childhood can continue to impact long into adulthood

Maltreatment in early childhood can continue to impact long into adulthood

by Freya Lucas

April 16, 2024

New research from the University of Cambridge and Leiden University has shown that childhood maltreatment can continue to have an impact long into adulthood because of how it affects an individual’s risk of poor physical health and traumatic experiences many years later.


The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that adult brains continue to be affected by childhood maltreatment in adulthood because these experiences make individuals more likely to experience obesity, inflammation and traumatic events, all of which are risk factors for poor health and wellbeing, which in turn also affect brain structure and therefore brain health.


The researchers examined MRI brain scans from approximately 21,000 adult participants aged 40 to 70 years in UK Biobank, as well as information on body mass index (an indicator of metabolic health), CRP (a blood marker of inflammation) and experiences of childhood maltreatment and adult trauma.


“We’ve known for some time that people who experience abuse or neglect as a child can continue to experience mental health problems long into adulthood and that their experiences can also cause long term problems for the brain, the immune system and the metabolic system, which ultimately controls the health of your heart or your propensity to diabetes for instance. What hasn’t been clear is how all these effects interact or reinforce each other,” researcher Sofia Orellana said. 


Using a type of statistical modelling that allowed them to determine how these interactions work, the researchers confirmed that experiencing childhood maltreatment made individuals more likely to have an increased body mass index (or obesity) and experience greater rates of trauma in adulthood. Individuals with a history of maltreatment tended to show signs of dysfunction in their immune systems, and the researchers showed that this dysfunction is the product of obesity and repeated exposure to traumatic events.


Although there is more to do to understand how these effects operate at a cellular level in the brain, the researchers believe that their findings advance our understanding of how adverse events in childhood can contribute to life-long increased risk of brain and mind health disorders.


“Now that we have a better understanding of why childhood maltreatment has long term effects, we can potentially look for biomarkers – biological red flags – that indicate whether an individual is at increased risk of continuing problems. This could help us target early on those who most need help, and hopefully aid them in breaking this chain of ill health,” Professor Ed Bullmore from the Department of Psychiatry and an Honorary Fellow at Downing College, Cambridge, said.


Access the study here

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