The effects of complex trauma on later development


You might recall, we have introduced some of the concepts underlying the effects of childhood trauma or adversity on the adult brain in the past. However, there is (like most literature on this subject) more to learn!

In a recent cohort study at King’s College London, the researchers investigated whether different types of traumas imply the same consequences on later development. According to the theory tested in this study, certain traumas involving interpersonal violence, such as those that occur in childhood, could be considered under a particularly harmful type of trauma, which is termed as ‘complex trauma.’ It was further hypothesised that complex traumas may be associated with greater levels of psychopathology and cognitive impairment than other types of traumas.

This study involved 2232 British individuals who were part of the Environmental Risk Longitudinal Twin study. Participants’ lifetime exposure to complex and non-complex trauma was assessed, along with past-year psychopathology, current cognitive functions, and their cognition as of the age of 18. Some other prospective factors were also evaluated; such as early childhood symptoms of internalising and externalising, their IQ at the age of 5, family history of mental illness, family socioeconomic status, and sex.

The results revealed that participants who had experienced more complex trauma as children were found to have more psychopathology and poorer cognitive function, compared to those participants who experienced less complex trauma and non-complex trauma as children. A strong correlation was found between early childhood vulnerability and complex trauma exposure which explained cognitive deficits in adulthood. It did not however, explain psychopathology.

The researchers also stated, “The pre-existing vulnerabilities that increase risk of complex trauma exposure also seem to be responsible for cognitive impairments. Clinicians should therefore avoid making causal assumptions in their formulations and aim to address vulnerabilities in their management plans.

Current research and clinical practice can underestimate the severity of psychopathology, cognitive deficits, and vulnerabilities that are connected with complex trauma by using muddled methodologies that combine simple and complex traumas. New interventions that are more effective could be developed based on a better understanding of mental health needs of people who have experienced complex trauma.

Find out more about Childhood trauma and the brain here:

Original Source: Lewis, S. J., Koenen, K. C., Ambler, A., Arseneault, L., Caspi, A., Fisher, H. L., Moffitt, T. E. and Danese, A. (2021) “Unravelling the contribution of complex trauma to psychopathology and cognitive deficits: a cohort study,” The British Journal of Psychiatry. Cambridge University Press, 219(2), pp. 448–455. doi: 10.1192/bjp.2021.57.

Featured photo from Pexels, by Pixabay.

Edited by Malavika.

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