Toward understanding the impact of trauma on the early developing human brain

Neuroscience. 2017 Feb 7;342:55-67. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2016.02.022. Epub 2016 Feb 15.


Traumatic experiences early in life predispose animals and humans to later cognitive-behavioral, emotional, and somatic problems. In humans, traumatic experiences are strong predictors of psychiatric illness. A growing body of research has emphasized alterations in neurological structure and function that underscore phenotypic changes following trauma. However, results are mixed and imprecise. We argue that future translation of neurological findings to clinical practice will require: (1) discovery of neurobehavioral associations within a longitudinal context, (2) dissociation of trauma types and of trauma versus chronic stress, and (3) better localization of neural sequelae considerate of the fine resolution of neural circuitry. We provide a brief overview of early brain development and highlight the role of longitudinal research in unearthing brain-behavior relations in youth. We relay an emergent framework in which dissociable trauma types are hypothesized to impact distinct, rationally informed neural systems. In line with this, we discuss the long-standing challenge of separating effects of chronic stress and trauma, as these are often intertwined. We bring to light inconsistencies in localization of neural correlates of trauma, emphasizing results in medial prefrontal regions. We assert that more precise spatial brain localization will help to advance prevailing models of trauma pathways and inform future research.

Keywords: abuse; adolescents; adversity; children; maltreatment; neural.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / growth & development*
  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Stress, Psychological / diagnostic imaging
  • Stress, Psychological / pathology
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*