Since the eighties, Oprah just might have done more than anyone to bring to light the consequences of abuse and neglect of our children. Meanwhile, in the nineties, the brain research began to enlighten and confirm what we knew. Abuse causes the brain of the child to be wired to behave in a certain way, so of course, children abused, neglected, and violated struggle their lifetimes to change and overcome early experiences.
How humans think and learn has always fascinated society. Scientists have questioned the intricacies of the brain and the process of early childhood development for centuries. Recently these questions have inspired even greater interest and attention, as result of new and promising technologies, such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), Positron Emission Tomography, (PET) scans and electroencephalographs (EEG’s), that reveal clearer pictures of the brain's inner workings. These technologies have allowed new insights into early development, reflecting a growing concern across the nation about young children's overall wellbeing.
Recently, scientists have made many discoveries about how a child's earliest experiences affect the way the brain develops. An explosion of research in the neurobiological, behavioral and social sciences have led to a better understanding of the factors that contribute to a child’s positive or negative start in life. Researchers now confirm that the way primary caregivers interact with their children in the early years and the experiences provided or encouraged have a significant impact on emotional development and learning abilities in later life (Shore, 1997; Teicher, 2000; Cicchetti, 2002).
While experiences shape and influence brain activity throughout life, children will undergo the most rapid brain development in the first few years of life (Kotulak, 1997; Perry, 2000). During this period when the child’s brain is becoming “hard-wired”, he/she is particularly receptive to positive interactions and experiences, but also vulnerable to negative ones (Perry, 2000). For example, using the most up to date methods, researchers at the Developmental Traumatology Laboratory in Pittsburgh are studying stress and brain development of traumatized children. Through brain scans of abused children, they found evidence that the brain volume of these children is smaller, leading to long-term cognitive and emotional difficulties (Hawley, 2000). Recent research in laboratory animals has shown severe stress in early life permanently reduces brain weight and DNA content (Teicher et al., 2002). These and other studies currently underway are beginning to confirm that a child’s earliest relationships and experiences play an important role in shaping the brain.
At the same time, scientists are now learning much more about the biological processes that underlie the influence of the environment. The concept of ‘nature versus nurture’ has been replaced with ‘nature through nurture’, as the inseparable influence of genetics and environment is better understood (National Research Council, Institute of Medicine, 2000). It is clear that genetics predispose us to develop in certain ways. However our interactions with the environment has a significant impact on how our predispositions will be expressed (Teicher, 2000; Gilles, 1999; Teicher et al., 2002). These interactions organize our brain’s development and, therefore shape the person we become (Shore, 1997). Based on animal studies, scientists have long believed that early abuse and neglect lead to neurobiological abnormalities, however until recently there has been little scientific evidence of this in humans other than clinical observation.
This shift in thinking, based on emerging scientific “evidence,” has resulted in a new perspective of a child’s earliest years (Gilles, 1999). As recently as fifteen years ago, it was assumed that the first few years of life, including that of gestation, was a time when nature inherently followed a predetermined course of physical growth and maturation. As long as the child received proper nutrition and care, he/she would continue to grow and develop, eventually reaching toddler-hood where “learning” occurs. The role of experience on the developing brain was under-appreciated. However, we now know that from the moment of conception through the first few years of life, the most complex and integrative organ in the world is being built and refined. The human brain is extraordinary in its rapid growth and potential to adapt to the demands placed upon it during the first few years of life. It is during this critical time that the brain is learning how to process information; essentially learning how to learn (Karr-Morse & Wiley, 1997).
While many entrepreneurs have capitalized on this burgeoning body of information, as a society, we have barely begun to use the vast research capabilities to advance the welfare of children, particularly children at risk due to abuse and neglect. Much of this research is providing biological explanations for what practitioners have been describing in psychological, behavioral and emotional terms. We are beginning to see scientific “evidence” of altered brain functioning as result of early abuse and neglect (Shore, 1997; Teicher 2000, Gilles, 1999; Teicher et al., 2002). This emerging body of knowledge has many implications for the prevention and treatment of child abuse and neglect – specifically - the capacity for us to favorably influence a child’s developmental outcomes through early screening and planned treatment interventions (Cicchetti, 2000).