Child abuse and neglect leave their marks on the brain, explains the Harvard Mental Health Letter
Researchers are looking for ways to prevent and reverse the harm. Rat pups from a genetically anx¬ious strain respond much better to stress as adults if they are adopted by unusually attentive foster mothers. In a strain of rats sensitive to alcohol, the risk of addiction is increased by early separation from their mothers. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibi¬tors (Prozac and others) may help, says the Harvard Mental Health Letter; other promising drugs include mifepristone (RU-486) and propranolol (Inderal). For post¬-traumatic stress disorder, psychological treatment can retrain the brain's response to traumatic memories.
Choice of treatment may depend on the nature of the childhood experience. Mistreatment does not cause the same brain changes in everyone. Individual genetic characteristics are important. The kind of stress—parental loss, neglect, or abuse—may also make a difference.
Learning more about the biological consequences of child mistreatment through brain imaging and molecular genetic studies will help scientists define the causes and nature of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. "Just as important," says Dr. Michael Miller, editor in chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, "it may improve our understanding of how resilient children maintain hope, control anxiety, and achieve normal development despite abuse and neglect."