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‘Brain is programmed’ by childhood trauma, researcher says

FRIDAY, APRIL 25, 2008

Imagine a small child at a dinner table, together with his parents. Nobody is eating, because Mom and Dad are fighting, with words escalating to punches. The child withdraws to a corner of the house, listening, heart pounding, waiting for the battle to end.

The next day at school, the child will have no visible bruises, but the damage will remain, Dr. Robert Anda told about 600 people attending the Our Kids: Our Business luncheon Thursday at the Spokane Convention Center. The communitywide campaign aims to raise awareness of child welfare issues.

“Stressing a child in this way is a violent act,” Anda said. “The brain is programmed by experience.”

Anda, a senior researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is one of the principal researchers behind the “Adverse Childhood Experiences Study,” which shows a correlation between exposure to childhood stress – such as having a parent in jail or an alcoholic parent or experiencing sexual, physical or emotional abuse – and later health and social problems such as depression, substance abuse and promiscuity.

Anda’s research is based on interviews and surveys of more than 17,000 people enrolled in Kaiser Permanente’s health plan in San Diego over the past two decades. He said the group can best be described as middle class, “ordinary people by American standards.”

He said he wept the first time he saw data showing how many in the group had lived through an “adverse childhood experience,” such as physical abuse (28 percent), psychological abuse (11 percent), sexual abuse (21 percent), and physical or emotional neglect (25 percent).

“We assigned one point to each ACE (adverse childhood experience). The total score is what I like to call the trauma dose,” Anda said. “It’s a biological dose you cannot control, and it messes with your brain development.”

Children subjected to a high trauma dose are more likely to develop depression and substance abuse problems as adults, Anda said.

“ACE is the most important public health problem in this country,” Anda asserted. “It influences almost every social or health problem in our world.”

This, he said, is where the business part of Our Kids: Our Business comes in. Health problems and absenteeism associated with chemical dependency cost American businesses an estimated $246 billion every year, Anda said.

“It leads to massive losses in spite of prevention programs and the most expensive health care system in the world,” he said.

But education can help, he said. “People are smart,” he said. “If we tell them that if you stress your kid it messes with how their brain develops, I’m sure they can understand that. We can no longer ignore this.”


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