These two scans are of the brains of two toddlers of the same age – yet one is significantly bigger.
The image on the left is of a three-year-old brought up in a nurturing environment, while the one on the right is of child who has suffered extreme emotional trauma and neglect.
The pictures provide a hard-hitting visual insight into how an abusive or neglectful childhood can impact the brain structures of youngsters.
They have been shared by Professor Bruce Perry, the chief of psychiatry at Texas Children’s Hospital.
This child in the right scan is suffering from ‘severe sensory-deprivation neglect’, he said, and as a result the brain is far smaller and has far more blurry structures.
It is believed the child lacked any experiences of sound, smell or touch and as a result will have been subjected to an extreme level of abuse.
He wrote: ‘These images illustrate the negative impact of neglect on the developing brain.
‘In the CT scan on the left is an image from a healthy three-year-old with an average head size.
‘The image on the right is from a three-year-old child suffering from severe sensory-deprivation neglect.
‘This child’s brain is significantly smaller than average and has enlarged ventricles and cortical atrophy.’
There were over 58,000 children identified as needing protection from abuse in the UK in 2016, according to the NSPCC. In the US, child abuse reports involved 7.2 million children.
Such structural damage to the brain means that a child will likely suffer developmental delays and memory problems.
Cortical atrophy is something that is more commonly seen in older people with from Alzheimer’s disease as degeneration progresses.
It is well known that some cases of physical abuse can cause immediate direct structural damage to a child’s brain, leading to permanent complications and even fatalities.
For example, according to the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome, shaking a child can destroy brain tissue and tear blood vessels.
This can lead to seizures, loss of consciousness, or even death.
In the long-term, shaking can damage the fragile brain so that a child develops a range of sensory impairments, as well as cognitive, learning, and behavioral disabilities.
Abuse early on can have long-lasting effects on children’s emotional development.
Dr Perry explains that children who have suffered emotional neglect can struggle to form healthy relationships.
They may end up with attachment disorders, in which they become overly dependent on others, or they may find it difficult to get close to people.
Neglected brains grow twice as slow
Previous research has found that a child’s upbringing can impact on their brain structure.
A study by US scientists last year suggested youngster’s brains grow at twice the rate of those who are ‘neglected’.
Brain scans showed that nurturing provided the most benefit to under-sixes – and even if a mother became more caring when a child was a bit older, those neglected when very young fail to catch up.
A team had analysed 127 children from when they started school until they were teenagers.
To assess their upbringing, their mothers were videoed as they tried to carry out a stressful task in the presence of their child.
Researcher Joan Luby, a child psychiatrist at Washington University, said: ‘This study suggests there’s a sensitive period when the brain responds more to maternal support.’
Other studies have linked childhood abuse to heart disease and obesity later in life.
Professor Perry concluded in his paper: ‘Healthy development of the neural systems which allow optimal social and emotional functioning depends upon attentive, nurturing caregiving in infancy and opportunities to form and maintain a diversity of relationships with other children and adults throughout childhood.’
THE UNDERDEVELOPED BRAIN OF A ROMANIAN ORPHAN
Academics from five British institutions, including Oxford University, studied the brains of troubled youngsters in 2010.
They found that their ‘wiring’ was affected by the abuse or neglect they suffered as toddlers.
In one example the brains of two three-year-old children were compared.
These images are further examples of how neglect can halt brain development
One child, who was adopted from a Romanian orphanage, had minimal exposure to language, touch and any kind of social interaction.
This boy’s brain was smaller than the other, healthy, child’s and has enlarged ventricles – holes in the centre.