Can childhood stress lead to behavioural problems?

Posted on August 21, 2011


Yesterday I was deployed to Birmingham to report on how West Midlands Police faced gun fire from a masked-gang of 30 youths during an organised attack in the area of Aston earlier this month.

The chief constable I interviewed, told me he believed this group, which had four handguns, had every intention of injuring or killing anyone who got in the way. Their coordinated attack was triggered following the rioting up and down the country.

The CCTV footage given to the press, which police say is an ‘unusal step’,  was released to encourage the community in Birmingham to come forward with information about this gang. The cops say they want to catch every single person and recover all of the handguns.

Eleven shots were fired at unarmed police who tried to break up the mob, before back-up from a chopper arrived. This was also shot at. Incredibly no one was hurt. (see report below)

But what makes these people think it’s acceptable behaviour in a civilised society? Police say there was no apparent motive for this rampage other than to explicitly incite violent disorder. Does this boil down to psychology?  The ages of the people involved has not yet been confirmed, but they appear to range from teenagers to young men. Is it because they lack role models and have had little or no parenting during childhood? The reasons may never be uncovered and the issues are complex.

In non human primates when infants are separated from their mothers they grow up anxious and anti-social from the stress experienced from separation. A study published this week suggests that changes to the brains of infant monkeys may be irreversible and could be a model for humans.

I’m not saying people become disaffected because they don’t have a perfect family unit, but it’s an interesting concept that our mental state could be damaged if we experience too much stress as children, in whatever form that might take.

The report in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the early shock to the system of separation may leave the monkeys prone to a life of anxiety, poor social skills and depression. It also saw that rhesus monkey babies do not fully recover from this stress even when they have gone on to live a normal social life years after.

When primates are stressed, which includes humans, a hormone is released called cortisol which helps us cope under pressure. It helps us to tap into energy stores and aids survival. But too much cortisol long-term is a bad thing. The study found the prolonged release of cortisol can lead to severe impairment of some brain regions in monkeys as they develop.

Baby rhesus monkeys experience long-term stress when they are separated from their mothers

The authors say that the negative effects of separation in infancy cannot be reversed by having a normal social life later on. These findings may also help to explain work reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry (AJP) on the link between childhood maltreatment and later depression in humans.

Dr Andrea Danese of King’s College London, co-author of AJP study, said: “In this case you have findings in animals that resemble to an extent the findings in humans both from a behavioural point of view and from a biological point of view.

“If you take studies in humans who have experienced loss I think the findings are quite consistent. Children who lose parents or are separated from parents tend to show more anxious behaviour, and tend also to have changes in the same type of hormones that were measured. In some cases they have poorer social skills, they have more aggressive behaviour.”

In humans, there also appear to be links between childhood adversity, physiology and other illnesses later in life, possibly through the stress-sensitive immune system.

Dr Danese said: “Both cortisol and the immune system are related. Adults with a history of childhood maltreatment have these elevated inflammation levels. Inflammation is one of the key factors that contribute to a number of age-related conditions like cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes and dementia.

“There is something in these stress sensitive systems that is very finely regulated and tuned in childhood. This is because all these systems are developing and maturing during early life.”

It appears that stress in childhood, for both monkeys and humans, can lead to behavioural and health problems that can only be partially repaired in later life and there’s no guarantee of this.

Researchers say if we can understand the causes of these behavioural problems perhaps we can start trying to find the potential solutions.

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