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Making neuroscience more accessible: childhood trauma, the brain and mental health

Last updated: 17 Sept 2020 Topics: News
Close up of infant sitting down at table

Today sees the launch of new resources to help bridge the gap between neuroscience and frontline practice.

An animation, guidebook and set of videos about childhood trauma and brain development have been created by University College London (UCL) in a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The resources, which are freely available, can be accessed here.

The resources are based on research, looking at how children’s brains adapt to abusive or neglectful environments in ways that help in the short term but increase risk of mental health problems in the future.

“We hope that a greater understanding of neuroscience research can help frontline professionals and carers to reframe their understanding of childhood trauma - providing a new lens through which to understand – and help – the children in their care.”

Eamon McCrory, Professor of Developmental Neuroscience and Psychopathology, UCL

What the research tells us

Over the last decade, scientists have been documenting changes to children’s threat, memory and emotion regulation systems brought about by their experience of abuse and neglect.

Research has shown us that changes to the brain associated with mental health vulnerability can be measured before a child shows a diagnosable problem.

Ongoing research

In 2017 the NSPCC and the ESRC also awarded four research grants, one of which went to a longitudinal brain imaging study led by Professor Eamon McCrory at UCL.

Now in its third year, the study is looking at how childhood maltreatment affects the way children process reward.

The brain’s reward system helps us learn about positive aspects of our environment, motivates behaviour, and guides decision-making. We know that a range of mental health problems, in particular depression, are associated with irregular reward processing.

How the study will help

By learning more about how reward is affected by abuse and neglect, and how to measure those changes, we will be in a better position to develop preventative help to reduce the likelihood of mental health problems emerging.

The ongoing research aims to develop reliable tasks for an early screening tool to predict vulnerability to later mental health problems.

Initial data from the study is being analysed and UCL hope to publish their first studies by the end of the year.

Using research to benefit children

With the Childhood Trauma and the Brain resources, UCL are making neuroscience research more accessible.

Building a bridge between neuroscience and practice will mean everyone – social workers, parents and carers, teachers and researchers – working together to develop better, more effective and evidence-based models of preventative help for children.

“As a neuroscientist and clinician, I have seen first-hand how hard it can be for frontline carers and professionals to access accurate and up-to-date information from neuroscience research on abuse and neglect. This seems a great shame given the painstaking work being undertaken by many research groups across the world. Much of the valuable knowledge they produce often ends up locked away in scientific journals.”

Eamon McCrory, Professor of Developmental Neuroscience and Psychopathology at UCL

Trauma and child brain development training

If you’re looking for training in this area that you can apply to your role, sign up for our course where you’ll improve your understanding of child brain development and the impact of trauma, abuse and stress.

See more details

Further resources

> Access UCL’s childhood trauma and the brain resources

> Read more about how adverse childhood experiences affect brain development

> Learn more about how you can support children with mental health issues