Stress and Brain Development
by Mommy MD Guide Rallie McAllister, MD, MPH
Stress may delay brain development in children, changing the growth of a specific area of the brain and the abilities it’s responsible for.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison* found that youngsters who had been exposed to more intense and long-lasting stress in childhood earned lower scores on tests of spatial working memory. They struggled with tests of short-term memory, such as finding a token in a series of boxes.
Brains scans performed on these children revealed that a portion of the brain believed to play a key role in spatial working memory, called the anterior cingulate, was smaller in children who had experienced more stress early in life. The scientists noted that while the size difference was subtle, it appears to have an important impact on a child’s ability to learn and remember.
Fortunately, the stress-related changes don’t appear to be permanent or irreversible. Rather, stress in early childhood might merely delay brain development. Because the brain is very plastic and able to modify itself, it’s likely that children with stress-induced brain changes will be able to catch up as they grow older.
Still, the message for moms is clear. In order to promote optimum brain growth and health, it’s important to keep childhood as stress-free as possible.
*J. L. Hanson, M. K. Chung, B. B. Avants, K. D. Rudolph, E. A. Shirtcliff, J. C. Gee, R. J. Davidson, S. D. Pollak. Structural Variations in Prefrontal Cortex Mediate the Relationship between Early Childhood Stress and Spatial Working Memory. Journal of Neuroscience, 2012; 32 (23): 7917