Trauma and the Developing Brain

Childhood trauma does horrendous things to a child’s mind, body, and psyche. Why? What does it change in the developing brain, and how? This article shall explore neurotransmitters and how they affect the different brain regions of a child and how these effects can be felt into adulthood. We shall also examine other factors that can lead to a child developing a mental health disorder that persists into adulthood.

What are Neurotransmitters?

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that carry signals between brain cells (neurons) and other cells throughout the body. These chemicals affect a wide range of both physical and psychological functions and keep our brains and bodies functioning. Neurotransmitters are vital to controlling everything from our heartbeat to our ability to learn properly.

For neurons to send messages to the body, they need to communicate with one another, and they do this by using a tiny gap called the synapse. This gap is where the signal from one cell (neuron) is transmitted to another through a process known as neurotransmission.

Neurotransmission involves a neurotransmitter being released from an axon terminal via small sacs full of neurotransmitters called vesicles. These vesicles then traverse the gap between the neurons to be taken up by the receptors on the neighboring cell. The neurotransmitter, after it has attached to the other neuron, will either excite or inhibit the receiving neuron. What it does depends upon the neurotransmitter and whether the neighboring cell accepts (uptakes) it.

The Role of Cortisol and Toxic Stress

Cortisol is a steroid from the adrenal glands that is released into the bloodstream to help the body respond to stress or danger. Cortisol has many functions, and having the right balance is critical for human health.

Some of the functions cortisol play in the body include:

  • Helps the body respond to stress or danger
  • Increases the body’s metabolism of glucose
  • Reduces inflammation
  • Controls blood pressure

The hormone cortisol is vital for the fight or flight response, which keeps a person safe by recognizing and reacting to perceived danger. However, if cortisol levels become chronically high, the real damage is done to the brain and other vital organs.

Producing too much or too little cortisol leads to severe bodily dysfunctions.

One study conducted by the National Science Foundation in 2005 found that children who had been victims of toxic stress during sensitive periods in brain development suffered changes in the brain regions responsible for the fear response, anxiety, and impulse responses. It also stated that the brain is altered in its neural connections dedicated to reasoning, planning, and behavioral control.   

Toxic Stress is defined as strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress management system. When the child experiences that are chronic, uncontrollable, and experienced without children being able to escape provoking the toxic stress response.

Extreme and repeated exposure to toxic stress leads to a stress system that responds at lower thresholds to events that might be benign to others. This leads to the stress response being activated more often and for longer periods of time than is necessary that can last all day.

Eventually, the child’s stress response is so fragile that they never experience relief.  

The Seven Vital Types of Neurotransmitters and How They Affect Survivors Later In Life

There are hundreds of myriad types of neurotransmitters, each with its own function. However, there are seven that have vital roles when dealing with stress, especially those experienced in childhood trauma.

Below is a list of these seven neurotransmitters and what each does.

Acetylcholine. This chemical is used by neurons in the peripheral nervous system (PNS) and the central nervous system (CNS) to control functions, including muscle contractions, heart rate, digestion, and memory.

Acetylcholine plays a role in brain development and, when interrupted by long-term trauma, can lead to problems in brain cell replication and for signaling cascades where the brain is awash with this neurotransmitter. The result can be demyelination, which is the taking away of or non-productive of the insulation that surrounds each neuron (brain cell). As with any wiring, if the brain cell lacks insulation or has gaps in it, the cell cannot properly allow a signal to travel from itself to another cell leading to deficits in functioning.    

Norepinephrine. This naturally occurring chemical increases heart rate, blood pressure, the release of glucose, increases in blood flow to skeletal muscles and reduces blood flow to the gastrointestinal system, plus other needed changes when a person is confronted by danger.

Too much activation during early childhood of norepinephrine can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stomach problems, and an inability to respond appropriately to perceived danger.    

Serotonin. Serotonin is vital to regulating mood and social behavior, digestion and appetite, memory, sleep, and sexual desire.

Too much or too little serotonin leads to mood dysregulation, lowered social, behavioral skills, eating disorders, chronic insomnia, and sexual problems.

Dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that controls the movements of a person’s body plus one’s ability to regulate their emotional responses. This chemical, in the correct proportions, is vital for both physical and mental wellbeing.

However, when secreted continually due to childhood trauma, the child will grow into a survivor who has problems regulating their emotions and living with a myriad of possible mental health problems.

GABA. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is involved in regulating communication between brain cells. GABA inhibits or reduces the activity of the neurons.

GABA is vital for the brain cells to connect to one another appropriately. Too much and the brain is chronically excited, too little, and the brain is sluggish in its responses.

Glutamate. This chemical is a powerful excitatory neurotransmitter responsible for propagating signals between brain cells. It also plays a vital role in memory and learning.

The power of glutamate can not be understated as it is highly responsible for making sure the brain cells are capable of speaking to one another. With a deficiency driven by toxic stress, the brain is unable to carry out its role correctly, and this affects memory and learning.  

Endorphins. Endorphins are actually a set of chemicals that interact with the opiate receptors in the brain and reduces our perception of pain.

Endorphins, or lack thereof, caused by childhood trauma might be a cause of chronic pain and other pain-related disorders later in life.

These chemicals that we make in response to stress are important to our being able to escape or confront danger, however, when the developing brain of a young child is bathed in stress hormones and never return to normal levels, the results can be disastrous. Such is the case in children who live in traumatic environments where they are in constant danger physically, emotionally, or sexually.

Myelination and Childhood Trauma

We create myelin to increase the size of the brain by creating layers around brain cells, and this increases the speed of information that can be processed. Neurons (brain cells) connect to each other and communicate, and this connectedness is dependent on our childhood experiences. We start out at birth with many more brain cells than we need and prune them once new connections are established.

These changes that occur during brain development are called plasticity, and this nature decreases over time. An important aspect is that the decrease in plasticity over time is different for different systems in the brain. Some areas of the cortex continue to reorganize with experience until late in life, while others such as language centers are less likely to change.

Trauma affects this normal development of the brain by interrupting through overstimulation of stress hormones, the ability of the brain to process memory, and the two hemispheres of the brain to communicate. While the survival center (brain stem) continues to keep us alive, the emotional center cannot regulate correctly what memories are stores were, and the hemispheres of the brain become fragmented in their ability to store information.

These changes are not reversible.

Although the exact mechanism of what occurs in the formation of alternate egos is not well understood, severe and repeated trauma that occurs before the age of about five is thought to be a vital factor to what leads to the development of Dissociative Identity Disorder.

Other Factors That May Cause Mental Illness

Scientists believe that many mental illnesses, if not all, result from problems experienced in the communication between the neurons during neurotransmission. As discussed, this disruption in communication leads to chemicals such as dopamine, glutamate, and norepinephrine that can lead to schizophrenia. They believe the connection between dopamine and schizophrenia exists because when observed, cocaine addicts sometimes show similar symptoms. Cocaine acts to increase the amount of dopamine in the synapses between brain cells.

While there may indeed be a connection between schizophrenia and dopamine, scientists do not understand what causes mental illness, but they know there are some risk factors related to a person’s environment, societal factors, and genetics.

Environmental Factors. Environmental factors may include the presence of a head injury, poor nutrition, and exposure to toxins.

Societal Factors. There are a number of societal factors that can harm a child’s mental health and affect them into adulthood. These include:

  • Death of a family member
  • A parent who commits a crime
  • Severe discord between the parents
  • Having a parent who lives with a mental illness
  • Overcrowding
  • Poverty
  • Abuse
  • Neglect
  • Exposure to violence

Genetic Factors. There are many genetic factors that can determine if a person will develop a mental illness. These include the development of autism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and ADHD.  

If a child is exposed to both environmental and social factors plus has a genetic component added in, then the likelihood of forming a mental illness increases greatly.

Ending Our Time Together

It is clear from reading scientific research and experience that childhood trauma leads to not only brain dysfunction but an altered life outcome. While these changes are not reversible, the reactions that people have to fear, change, and in their personal interactions with others can.

It is not easy to work through the issues caused by childhood trauma. It takes arduous work and dedication to healing. While one cannot change the damages done to their brain, attending therapy, and allowing a psychiatrist to prescribe medications that alter the way the brain interacts with neurotransmitters will help.

No one needs to suffer from severe mental health issues alone. There are millions of people who understand and will aid in lessening the impact of childhood trauma, but you must reach out for that help.

Helpful Links: There are literally thousands of organizations out there to help with every aspect of mental health issues. Do a google search to find more. Below I have given three popular sites.

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA)

Mental Health America (MHA)

“Healing takes courage, and we all have courage, even if we have to dig a little to find it.” ~Tori Amos

“The place of true healing is a fierce place. It’s a giant place. It’s a place of monstrous beauty and endless dark and glimmering light. And you have to work really, really, really hard to get there, but you can do it.” ~ Cheryl Strayed


National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2005). Excessive stress disrupts the architecture of the developing brain. Working Paper No, 3.

Study, B. S. C., & National Institutes of Health. (2007). Information about Mental Illness and the Brain. In NIH Curriculum Supplement Series [Internet]. National Institutes of Health (US).

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *