Exposure to traumatic experiences in childhood can have a negative impact on the development of the brain when it’s most vulnerable. Cases of childhood maltreatment are more common than reported; conservative estimates show over 45,000 Australian children were exposed to maltreatment in 2015 and 2016.
Adversity in childhood can include experiences such as emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, neglect, and the sudden loss of a parent or caregiver.
Traumatic childhood events also contribute to increased drug use and dependence. Initiation of drug-taking behaviour begins at a much younger age in those who’ve experienced childhood trauma. Exposure to stressful events in childhood can increase the impact of stressful events throughout life. Add divorce or unemployment to childhood trauma and someone can be more likely to develop psychological disorders or addiction.
But not all children who experience early life stress go on to develop mental illness. It seems how you cope with stressful experiences is not only influenced by your prior experiences, but also your genes, coping responses and brain regulation. Chemicals in the brain such as cortisol and oxytocin are important for stress and emotional regulation.
Oxytocin is a hormone naturally produced by the brain. It’s commonly called the “love hormone” as it promotes sociability, emotional regulation, and bonds between a mother and child, as well as between romantic partners.
Environmental factors can also influence the development of the oxytocin system, which starts to develop in the womb and continues to develop after birth. Critical changes occur during infancy, childhood, and adolescence, based on our experiences. Positive or negative experiences early in life can shape the oxytocin system.
Exposure to nurturing and loving parents can contribute to the normal development of this system. Exposure to adversity, such as stress or illness, can detrimentally affect the development and functioning of oxytocin and the oxytocin receptor.
Early life stressors do not only impact the oxytocin system. A number of other systems that work with oxytocin also change, such as important neurotransmitters and the stress system. This results in changes to how these systems interact and contributes to changes in the oxytocin system and ultimately behaviour.
As oxytocin is critically involved in emotional regulation, understanding how the developing oxytocin system can be affected early in life can help us understand how early adversities can have a long-lasting impact on mental health.
Authors: Sarah Baracz, Associate lecturer, Macquarie University and Femke Buisman-Pijlman, Senior Lecturer Addiction Studies, University of Adelaide Top Image: Matthias Ripp/Flickr