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Two UW-Madison Professors Investigate Childhood Trauma Effects

“‘It’s not that people are overtly deciding to take these negative risks, or do things that might get them in trouble… It may very well be that their brains are not really processing the information that should tell them they are headed to a bad place, that this is not the right step to take.'”

Seth Pollak, a UW-Madison psychology professor has spent years studying the effects of stress on children.

Adults who endured high levels of stress within their childhood have difficulty reading signs of potential punishment or loss, which makes them vulnerable to certain avoidable health, legal, and financial problems.

According to a study conducted by researchers at UW-Madison, this problem may in fact be biological, stemming from certain inactivity in the brain where a situation should be triggering awareness.

This discovery may help educate at-risk youth to avoid risky situations.

Pollak and an additional UW-Madison psychiatry Professor Rasmus Birn conducted an experiment with 50 people aged 19 to 23. These participants participated in a previous study with Pollak when they were 8 years old. The participants were those who endured high stress levels as children, such as parents killed by gunfire or substance abuse, maltreatment, and foster home placements.

The study was conducted by two UW-Madison professors. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

The participants were put through several tasks while their brain functionality was measured for activity areas of loss, risk, and reward in the brain.

Results showed that high childhood stress participants were less attentive to a potential loss situation than the low childhood stress group, and were more stimulated by losses. The high-stress childhood group also reported more risky behaviors- smoking, not wearing a seatbelt in a car, or texting while driving- compared to low stress participants.

To the researchers’ surprise, it was solely the participants’ childhood stress level, and not the stress in their current lives, that was a predictor of their abilities to identify potential losses or avoiding risky behaviors.

“’So many of our behavioral interventions are predicated on the idea that people will understand there’s a sign they’re about to be punished,’” Pollak said. “’Maybe we need to rethink some of those things.’”

The researchers plan to further investigate their findings and continue researching this topic.

“’Now that we have this finding, we can use it to guide us to look at specific networks in the brain that are active and functionally connected,’” Birn said. “’We may find that childhood stress reshapes the way communication happens across the brain.’”

Gillian Keebler
Student Assistant, Go Big Read Office