Children separated from their mothers or abandoned soon after birth grow up into anxious or depressed adults, said city psychotherapists, confirming recent findings of a study on animal models published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
A study on rats carried out by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Colaba and the University of Toronto suggests that negative experiences in early life changed their brain circuits in a way that increased their vulnerability to stress during adulthood.
“In any individual, the chance of developing psychiatric disorders is a combination of genetic history and life experience,” said Vidita Vaidya, biologist at TIFR. “The individual could either be vulnerable or resilient. Clinical information from children with a history of trauma and neglect indicates that negative experience can contribute to the risk for psychiatric disorders.”
The TIFR study suggests in particular that major changes in the way the serotonin2A receptors function in the brain based on the quality of life experience may be important in determining how experiences changes whether an individual is vulnerable or protected from psychiatric disorders.
“The quality of care one receives in early life changes the extent and manner in which this receptor functions and may be important to the effects of early life in shaping the extent of anxiety in adulthood,” she said.
“Stressful situations in early childhood influence both brain structure and growth. Parents thus need to secure their kids,” said Dayal Mirchandani, a psychiatrist who treats such cases.
The death of a parent early in life or the child getting hospitalised without the parent could also be reasons for stress and anxiety in adulthood. These children could grow into adults with low self-esteem, relationship problems or even confusion about careers.
“Experiences get encoded in the brain before the age of three. Therefore there could be trauma even before language develops,” said Dr Rani Raote, psychotherapist, who has worked with adult patients with early separation. “We assume that memory is what we can write and repeat. But there is implicit memory from images, sounds and sensation that can manifest into various forms in adulthood.”
According to psychiatrists and psychotherapists, stress and trauma in the first four years of brain formation affects the child’s intelligence and emotional stability. During these early years, the child needs active nurturing that makes them more resilient to deal with difficulties in adult life.
However, damage from negative early life experiences can also be repaired or lessened with a responsible support system. The TIFR study showed that some of this could be returned to normal by administering a drug that blocks the serotonin2A receptor.
“Apart from therapy, symptoms can also be managed with the help of loving partners, active nurturing by caregivers over time, sensitive teachers as well as meditation,” said Mirchandani.