Early childhood stress affects children’s brain development


The first few years of a child’s life are the utmost important, many professionals would argue. During these early years, their brain is continuing to grow and mold around certain circumstances. For example, it is widely known that learning a second language is best when taught at an early age. Children absorb information, good or bad, like a sponge. Teaching children at an early age will affect their synapse rewiring or brain organization. This goes for both negative and positive teachings.

Children who grow up in unsafe environments and are constantly around verbal abuse are more likely to suffer from mental illness and unhappiness later in life than children who grow up in positive environments. This does not come as a surprise since evidence has stated for years how young minds are moldable at such an early age. A study performed by Duke University found that childhood stress can affect the adult’s brain response to rewards, which can lead to depression and unhappiness.

The reward pathways in the brain

The brain’s reward system is a very complex process. Dopamine and serotonin are the two primary neurotransmitters that are involved in the reward process in the brain. The brain’s most important reward pathway is the mesolimbic dopamine system. This pathway is located in the brain’s limbic system, also known as the reward system in the brain.

The ventral tegmental area-nucleus accumbens (VTA-NAc) pathway is another addiction pathway that is part of a series of parallel, integrated circuits, which involve several other key brain regions. This VTA-NAc circuit is a key detector of a rewarding stimulus. Under normal conditions, the VTA-NAc controls a person’s response to natural rewards — including food, sex and social interactions — making this circuit an important determinant of motivation and incentive drive. The VTA is the site of dopaminergic neurons, which play a major role in the reward system.

Taking a closer look at the study

“We found that greater levels of cumulative stress during childhood and adolescence predicted lower reward-related ventral striatum activity in adulthood,” according to the study’s lead author Jamie Hanson, a postdoctoral researcher at Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy and at the Duke department of psychology and neuroscience. The most important period of changes to acute stress was found between kindergarten and third grade. During this time, children who underwent more stressful events such as a divorce, violence or any form of abuse were more likely to have a decreased response to reward later in life. They believe that ventral-striatum activity is an important marker in mental health.

“Participants in the study were closely monitored beginning in kindergarten and then were scanned using brain imaging when they were adults. The participants were all part of the Fast Track Project, which in 1991 began tracking how children developed across their lives. For this new study, researchers focused on the levels of stress that 72 subjects were exposed to early in development. At age 26, the study participants completed an experimental game to assess how their brains processed rewards and positive feedback. The scientists focused on reward-related activity in an area of the brain known as the ventral striatum, measured using fMRI.”

The study did not specify the type of negative events nor did the authors stratify whether one negative event is worse than another. In addition, the study did not specify whether or not these brain pathways can be reversed if the child enrolls in intense therapy. In other words, can we reverse these changes if we take the proper precautions?

Whenever a stressful or traumatic event occurs, it is important to always seek professional help in the realm of therapy to prevent even more emotional and mental damage. Our hope is to prevent these stressful and traumatic events from occurring to young children, but unfortunately some of these things may be out of our control.

White River Academy is a therapeutic boarding school for adolescent males from age 12 through 17 who struggle with addiction, mental health disorders and co-occurring conditions. For more information, please call our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Kristen Fuller, M.D., enjoys writing about evidence-based topics in the cutting-edge world of medicine. She is a physician and author, who also teaches, practices medicine in the urgent care setting and contributes to medicine board education. She is also an outdoor and dog enthusiast. 

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