I was just attending the annual conference of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers that was held in San Diego this year. It was a stimulating experience with talks and workshops by some of the leading clinicians and researchers in the field. One of the high points of the conference was a presentation by Dr. Martin Teicher, Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Clinical Biopsychiatry Research Program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. The focus of Dr. Teicher's presentation was on the neurobiological affects of different types of stress on the developing brain, especially in terms of the short and long-term impact of child physical and sexual abuse on brain development. In particular, that early childhood maltreatment acts as a severe stressor that can produce various physiogical and hormonal reactions that leads to lasting alterations in patterns of brain development which, in turn, can manifest as different psychiatric disorders. Early stress can program the body's "fight or flight" systems to react more adversely to later stressors. There is also evidence for different periods during development when different regions of the brain are especially affected by early stress. Therefore, it isn't just the nature of the abuse but at when the abuse happens that can affect later development. Early neglect can also be as debilitating as physical or sexual abuse (a point that I have discussed before).
There also appear to be different abuse-related syndromes associated with particular ages of abuse and specific regional brain changes. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Major Depression, Borderline Personality Disorder, Impulse Disorders and aggression may be the result of abuse that only emerges at a much later stage of brain development (or even in adulthood). Even verbal abuse can impact later emotional and social development. Dr. Teicher concluded the presentation by arguing that society reaps what it sows in how children are nurtured. Early abuse can mold the brain to be more irritable, impulsive, and hypervigilant. He states that "maltreatment is a chisel that shapes a brain to contend with anticipated strife but at the cost of deep, enduring wounds. Early childhood stress isn't something you "get over". It is an evil that we must acknowledge and confront if we aim to do anything about the unchecked cycle of violence which often leads victims of abuse to become abusers".