In our previous article, we examined how neuroimaging is giving new insights into changes in the brain caused by trauma. Yes, trauma harms the human brain but how does that work? What could our bodies be doing that causes the types of damage outlined in this article?
Today, we shall investigate what is causing the damage to the brains of traumatized men, women, and children and give some hints as to what can prevent it. If you keep reading this series, you will be amazed by the new information we are going to share with you about what researchers are doing to find an effective treatment and possibly even a cure for many trauma-related disorders.
A Recap of the Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Findings
In the first article, we examined how functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has given a new understanding of how trauma changes the brain. We covered how the amygdala and hippocampus were found to be moderately to severely impacted. I quote:
“What researchers looked at the brains of those who have experienced severe traumatic events, such as those returning from war, they found damage to the amygdalae and hippocampi.
A study examined, with the then new neuroimaging tool functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in 1980 revealed smaller than normal volumes in both the hippocampi and amygdalae of people living with the diagnosis of PTSD.
What this study shows is how two vital regions of the brain associated with emotional regulation and memory consolidation are damaged when exposed repeatedly to traumatic stress.” (1,2)
The damage to the amygdalae and hippocampi of traumatized individuals is severe and impacts many higher functions including impulse control and the consolidation of traumatic memories in association with sensory (sight, smell, audio) memories.
For example, a young girl age 9 experiences a severely traumatic event that occurred in a room where a rose scented candle was burning. Because she has experienced this event before, she has learned to dissociate her memory of the trauma away from herself. In other words, one might say the memories of what happened are “misfiled” as they are placed deep into the subconscious where they cannot be easily recovered (remembered). This “misfiling” occurs because the emotional overload experienced by the amygdala makes it twice as difficult for the hippocampus to place memories into the proper neurocircuit formations with sensory input.
The result is the girl may not remember anything of the traumatic event until triggered later in life, normally in adulthood. The memories often roar to the surface with force triggered by sensory input such as the smell of a dozen roses leaving the woman bewildered and afraid.
There are other disorders linked to decreased volume of the hippocampi of adults who experienced childhood trauma. According to a study conducted at the Mood Disorders Program and Department of Radiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, those who experience major depressive disorder also show a decreased volume of their hippocampi in relation to “normal” subjects (Carion, Marriott, et. al., (2004) (3).
Other Brain Regions Found to be Affected by Trauma
As if having damage to the amygdalae and hippocampi is not enough, research has shown there is also harm done to the prefrontal cortex, the corpus callosum and the myelin surrounding the “wiring” of the brain.
Let us inspect these regions of our brain and how they are affected by trauma.
The Prefrontal Cortex. The prefrontal cortex is a structure of the brain that controls thinking skills, emotional expression, problem-solving, language, judgment, and sexual behavior. The prefrontal cortex carries the name “control panel” because it is the region that makes us human and enables us to control our natural impulses.
Research published in 2001 in the journal Society of Biological Psychiatry (Carrion, Weems, et.al., (2001) compared children and adolescents with and without post-traumatic stress disorder using MRI studies to see the changes in vital brain regions. They found that traumatized children had a lack of symmetry between the two halves of the prefrontal lobe and were smaller than “normal” test subjects. (4)
With the prefrontal cortex damaged comes a myriad of different problems in adulthood such as difficulty with impulse control, decision making and those affected are at higher risk of developing a substance abuse disorder due to dysregulation of important neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin.
The Corpus Callosum and Myelin
The human brain is separated into two hemispheres, the right, and the left. The corpus callosum is the section of the brain between the two halves consisting of 200 million axons (long and slender nerve fibers that conduct electrical impulses from the nerve cell to the other parts of the brain).
This “wiring” helps carry neuro messages that travel unimpeded between the left and right sides. The primary function is to integrate sensory, thinking, and motor skills between the cerebral cortex on the right side to its partner on the left.
Each nerve fiber in the corpus callosum is covered with a fatty substance known as myelin. Myelin functions as a protective barrier and helps the electrical signals inside the nerve fibers propagate properly. Without Myelin, the brain cannot adequately communicate with itself or the body.
One disease suspected of being caused by myelin destruction is schizophrenia. (5). If anyone knows someone who lives with the diagnosis of schizophrenia you will have noticed how that person seems to be healthy for a while, then relapses. This is most likely caused by their damaged myelin in their corpus callosum having intermittent signals. In other words, their brain has developed a short.
The Stress Hormones Released During Trauma
Contributing to the brain damage caused by trauma are the stress hormones that are released when we feel endangered, frightened, and alarmed.
One stress hormone is called Oxytocin and this chemical is vital for emotional regulation and is necessary for us to attach to our parents and connect with life partners. Without it, we would not form normal human relationships.
After being a victim of childhood trauma, a survivor’s brain will produce less Oxytocin, and this means they may experience dysregulation in our emotional attachments to others. This is true for both men and women who survived childhood trauma.
An extreme example would be the levels of Oxytocin in adults who survived severe neglect in a Romanian orphanage. (6) When parents in the United States and other countries adopted the children, they noticed their kids had a very difficult time attaching to them or expressing their emotions properly. Many went on to have severe mental illness in adulthood. Traumatic early life experiences that negatively impact adult survivors also makes them susceptible to developing drug dependency and less able to handle stress.
Another significant stress hormone is Cortisol. Cortisol is made in the adrenal glands and our bodies contain millions of receptors of this chemical in every organ and muscle. Cortisol is necessary to the amygdala and hippocampus as it along with Adrenalin are the chemicals that cause our heart rate and blood pressure to increase to ready us for the fight/flight/flee/freeze response.
Cortisol is also vital to controlling blood sugar levels, regulating metabolism and in reducing inflammation. Without Cortisol, or with decreased levels of it, humans have a difficult time with memory formation and regulation of bodily functions.
Inflammation as the Root Cause of Mental Illness
Recent research in neuropsychology has found that inflammation is the root cause of many mental health disorders. For the sake of time, let us investigate together only how inflammation changes the brain of a person living with the diagnosis of schizophrenia.
A paper published by Elsevier found that subjects the brains of people who have schizophrenia have a permanent state of dysregulation. It is possible that infection suffered during their mother’s pregnancy sets the brain immunity response in motion causing damage. (7)
In laymen’s terms, if a mother has either a viral infection during pregnancy, her body’s automatic immune response affects her fetus because their child’s brain suffers an attack from the pathogen that made their mother ill.
Until recently, this response was considered impossible for two reasons. One, the fetus was said to be protected from pathogens passing from their mother into their bodies because of the placental barrier. Two, the brain of the fetus was thought to be protected because of the blood/brain barrier and would, therefore, have prevented pathogens from passing from mother to child.
So, How do Viruses Invade a Fetus?
The mechanism of how viruses pass from mother to fetus is not well-understood. However, we know more and more every day through new research. Below is a possible explanation of how viruses find their way from a mother to her fetus’ brain tissue.
Viruses are very clever. The whole purpose of invading the body of a human by a virus is survival. They need a compatible host so they can breed more virus cells and continue their species. When the virus invades the mother, it does a remarkable thing. It mutates to mimic the white blood cells the mother’s body is producing to kill them thus hiding from other white blood cells.
Once the virus has taken the form of a white blood cell, they can go anywhere in the body, including through the placenta and into the fetus. Once in the fetus, the best place for these pathogens to multiple is the blood enriched brain. Because it is disguised, the virus passes easily within the brain bypassing the blood/brain barrier and invades the brain of the fetus.
Research has shown that once the virus breaches the brain/blood barrier, it bursts out of the camouflage it wore into the child and attempts to multiply. Researchers have found evidence of this action during autopsies of fetuses when they dissected and studied the blood/brain barrier where they found the remnants of the camouflage shells used by the invaders.
The infection that results in the brain of the fetus is, for the most part, harmless and the baby will be born with no obvious symptoms because the child’s own immune system destroys the virus. However, the inflammation caused by the virus remains and over time damages vital tissues in the child’s developing brain.
These changes and the inflammation that cause them to become worse over time and in early adulthood the survivor of the initial attack by the virus invader exhibits their first psychotic break.
Pulling It All Together
If this piece seemed a bit overwhelming, that was unintentional. However, to understand the next two articles, a basic understanding of the brain regions affected by brain inflammation is vital.
In the next article, we shall explore how inflammation causes a myriad of mental health conditions, including complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and some possible ways to treat diseases like schizophrenia before they become too severe.
“Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete? Proving nature’s laws wrong, it learned to walk without having feet. Funny, it seems to by keeping it’s dreams; it learned to breathe fresh air. Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else even cared.” ~ Tupac Shakur
- Stevens, J. S., Jovanovic, T., Fani, N., Ely, T. D., Glover, E. M., Bradley, B., & Ressler, K. J. (2013). Disrupted amygdala-prefrontal functional connectivity in civilian women with posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of psychiatric research, 47(10), 1469-1478.
- Brenner, G.H, (2018). New Study Shows Brain Change After Psychological Trauma. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/experimentations/201812/new-study-shows-brain-change-after-psychological-trauma
- Campbell, S., Marriott, M., Nahmias, C., & MacQueen, G. M. (2004). Lower hippocampal volume in patients suffering from depression: a meta-analysis. American Journal of Psychiatry, 161(4), 598-607.
- Carrion, V. G., Weems, C. F., Eliez, S., Patwardhan, A., Brown, W., Ray, R. D., & Reiss, A. L. (2001). Attenuation of frontal asymmetry in pediatric posttraumatic stress disorder. Biological psychiatry, 50(12), 943-951.
- Lyall, A. E., Savadjiev, P., Del Re, E. C., Seitz, J., O’Donnell, L. J., Westin, C. F., … & Niznikiewicz, M. (2018). Utilizing Mutual Information Analysis to Explore the Relationship Between Gray and White Matter Structural Pathologies in Schizophrenia. Schizophrenia bulletin, 45(2), 386-395.
- Fries, A. B. W., Ziegler, T. E., Kurian, J. R., Jacoris, S., & Pollak, S. D. (2005). Early experience in humans is associated with changes in neuropeptides critical for regulating social behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102(47), 17237-17240.
- Patterson, P. H. (2009). Immune involvement in schizophrenia and autism: etiology, pathology and animal models. Behavioural brain research, 204(2), 313-321.