How childhood stress can lead to adult depression

MccarthyClaire111408Childhood should be a happy time, not a stressful time—that’s something everyone can agree on. But for many children, childhood is very stressful. Family tragedy, natural disasters, poverty, abuse or exposure to violence (in the home, in the community, or when the country is at war) are just a few examples of what can turn childhood from a dream into a nightmare.

This is terrible for children. It’s not just a matter of robbing them of happiness; more and more research is showing that stress early in life can actually change the way a child’s brain works—for life.

A study in the journal Nature Neuroscience this month helps us understand why. Researchers stressed baby mice (by separating them from their mothers daily for the first 10 days of life). The mice that had this early life stress behaved quite differently from mice that didn’t. They showed signs of anxiety and had trouble learning—even a year later. The researchers tied this to a change in a gene that caused increased production of a certain brain chemical (arginine vasopressin). This in turn led to increased production of corticosteroids, a stress hormone, and to disruption in the parts of the brain that control mood and learning.

People who have been exposed to terrifying things show very similar behavior to those mice. Doctors call it post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. People suffering from PTSD have recurrent frightening memories, anxiety, depression, anger and other problems—even years after the event. PTSD is often seen in adults, such as soldiers returning from war, but children can be affected as well. It is terrible whenever it happens, but it is particularly tragic in children, whose lives can be literally changed forever.

The mice study had some hopeful news, however. When the researchers gave the mice a medication that counteracted arginine vasopressin, many of the effects of the stress were reversed. Hopefully this information will help doctors as they look for more and better ways to help people suffering from the devastating effects of PTSD.

In the meantime, there are things you can do today to help a child in a stressful situation….

  • If your child or your family has gone through a very difficult experience, talk to your child’s doctor about getting help from a mental health professional. Even if your child seems fine, it’s best to be sure you’re doing everything you can to prevent future problems.
  • If you know a family that is going through something terrible, such as a death, a serious illness, or a major financial loss, reach out. Offer to cook, babysit, shop, or whatever might make life easier; organize a collection at your school or faith organization. Never underestimate your ability to make a difference in the life of a child.
  • Volunteer for or donate to organizations that help families in need, such as Big Brothers, Big Sisters or food pantries. The tighter we weave our safety net, the better the future is for everyone.

Claire McCarthy, MD, is a primary care physician and the medical director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Martha Eliot Health Center. Read her recent post on the five things you need to know about H1N1.