Psychologist Detects Brain-Activity Changes In Maltreated Kids

MADISON - Learning to spot signs of anger early, before they lead to trouble, becomes a finely honed survival skill for children who have suffered severe abuse.

A new study by a University of Wisconsin-Madison psychologist suggests that this survival skill may actually trigger biological changes, altering the way the brain processes anger.

Seth Pollak, assistant professor of psychology and psychiatry and Waisman Center investigator, says the findings shed new light on the question of why traumatic early-life experiences cause so many serious problems throughout adolescence and adulthood. The research also could suggest better treatment for overcoming past abuse.

"Why does something that happens to someone when they're 2, 3 or 4 years old have such pervasive developmental effects?" asks Pollak. "This study is one way to find some of the underlying developmental changes caused by traumatic events."

Pollak's study, which he presented to the Society for Psychophysiological Research last fall, looked at differences in brain electrical activity between children who have suffered specific forms of child abuse and children who have not suffered maltreatment. The study involved 28 maltreated children and 14 children who were in the control group, all ages 7-11. The children and their parents volunteered to participate after being referred by county and state child protective agencies.

In his Child Emotion Research Laboratory, Pollak developed a harmless experiment that children treat as a game, where they are shown pictures of a series of faces and asked to look for a specific emotion. If they are asked to look for happy faces, for example, they will press a button every time such a face appears on the screen. The range of faces in the pictures are happy, angry and fearful.

During the game, children wear a cap with tiny receptors that can measure their brain electrical activity. The response measured is called an Event Related Potential (ERP), wh

Contact: Seth Pollak
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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