Exposure to common family problems during early childhood and adolescence can affect brain development, according to a study led by Dr. Nicholas Walsh, lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of East Anglia.
The study showed that those who experience mild to moderate family difficulties between birth and age 11 tend to develop a smaller cerebellum, the part of the brain associated with skill learning, stress regulation and sensory motor control. A smaller cerebellum may also “be an indicator of mental health issues later on [in life]”, according to Dr. Walsh.
The study focused on the effects of common, lasting forms of ‘family-focused’ problems, such as tension between parents or lack of affection or communication between family members, on healthy teenage brains.
Dr. Walsh said: “psychiatric illnesses are a huge public health problem and the biggest cause of disability in the world. We show that exposure in childhood and early adolescence to even mild or moderate family difficulties…may affect the developing adolescent brain.”
Participants who reported to have experienced stressful events when they were aged 14 were found to have increased volume in more regions of the brain when aged 17-19. This may indicate that experiencing stress during the later development of the brain inoculates teenagers against exposure to difficulties later in life. These results suggested that the timing and severity of such difficulties may also be important in studying brain development.
The study also showed that those who had experienced such family problems were more likely to be diagnosed with psychiatric illness, have a parent with a mental health disorder and have negative perceptions of how their family functioned.