Neurobiological Consequences of Childhood Trauma

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There is considerable evidence to suggest that adverse early-life experiences have a profound effect on the developing brain. Neurobiological changes that occur in response to untoward early-life stress can lead to lifelong psychiatric sequelae. Children who are exposed to sexual or physical abuse or the death of a parent are at higher risk for development of depressive and anxiety disorders later in life. Preclinical and clinical studies have shown that repeated early-life stress leads to alterations in central neurobiological systems, particularly in the corticotropin-releasing factor system, leading to increased responsiveness to stress. Clearly, exposure to early-life stressors leads to neurobiological changes that increase the risk of psychopathology in both children and adults. Identification of the neurobiological substrates that are affected by adverse experiences in early life should lead to the development of more effective treatments for these disorders. The preclinical and clinical studies evaluating the consequences of early-life stress are reviewed.

J Clin Psychiatry 2004;65(suppl 1):18-28