MRI file photo

Traumatic or stressful events may lead to small changes in key structures of a child's brain, a new study from the University of Alberta has revealed.

The study, conducted by eight U of A researchers, shows that trauma or maltreatment during a child’s early years can trigger changes in sub-regions of the amygdala and hippocampus.

According to the U of A study, these two areas of the brain are regarded as targets of adversity because they exhibit protracted postnatal development.

In other words: “We’ve been able to show tiny, tiny regions of the brain decades later still seem to bear the scars from this trauma that children have had,” Dr. Peter Silverstone, professor of psychiatry at the University of Alberta and co-author of the study, explained.

Previous work on this subject has primarily been conducted in animals. But, according to the study, recent advances with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has allowed researchers to test on humans for the first time.

A total of 35 participants with major depressive disorder (MDD) were recruited, plus 35 healthy control subjects.

The researchers found affected areas of the brain become maladaptive or dysfunctional after biological changes occur in those stress-related brain structures, making people more vulnerable to developing MDD or other psychiatric disorders.

“Many of us know that children and youth who are traumatized often have a much higher risk of having mental health problems,” Silverstone said.

“Understanding the specific structural and neurochemical brain changes that underlie mental health disorders is a crucial step toward developing potential new treatments for these conditions, which have only increased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.”


Silverstone told CTV News Edmonton new research may help shed some light on how promising new treatments like psychedelics work. He said there’s mounting evidence to suggest they may increase nerve regrowth.

“I think the most exciting new treatments turn out being things that have been around for a long time. We’ve got ketamine and variants of that, which is interesting. And mushrooms have been used by humans for over 5000 years, and it’s fascinating that they turn out to be some of the most promising new therapies in psychiatry,” Silverstone said.

“For the first time, maybe we can understand exact changes that occur and maybe there’s hope that by using therapeutic mushrooms plus therapy we can actually reverse these changes.”

The full study was published in the current issue of the Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience.