This is a child's brain on trauma; this is the life of that traumatized brain

What if depression wasn't a disease, but a normal response to trauma? That's one of the questions [Dr. Vincent Felitti, co-founder of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's ACE Study, posed this week in a webinar he did for SAMHSA -- the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. SAMHSA is a federal agency whose goal is to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America's communities.

He says our current approach to helping people get over addiction is all wrong. "You have to look at the benefits [of drugs, alcohol, food, etc.] rather than the risk," he said. People who are addicted to alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, food regard them as a solution, not a problem.

He showed several videos of his patients, including one who called the 200 extra pounds she carried "a protective barrier". When she was a child her grandfather sexually abused her. A man who had ended his addiction to alcohol and other drugs would not give up smoking. "It keeps a door closed to the past."

Why are addictions so difficult to treat? In this country, said Felitti, if someone has had a traumatic experience, perhaps decades ago, our attitude is "just get over it." But that's difficult, as he pointed out with this image of the brains of two children. The one on the left is a healthy 3-year-old American boy. The one on the right is a three-year-old Romanian boy who lived in one of the many Romanian orphanages that were known for severely neglecting children, thousands of whom were imprisoned in cribs and rarely given attention.

With no activity in a brain that is supposed to be making 700 new synapses a second, the experience of neglect, in this case, is sure to alter the brain architecture, said Felitti, which means its formation, and thus its function will be damaged. Traumatized children aren't able to concentrate in school. They have difficulty learning how to interact socially, because they're in flight, fight or freeze mode. They grow up using substances that offer relief from their situation, or to keep a door closed on the past, as Felitti's patient said. And the more types of trauma they experienced -- the higher their ACE score -- the more likely the addictive behavior.

Among the substances that help people cope with their traumas are alcohol.

The nicotine in cigarettes suppresses anger, is an anti-depressive, and helps with anxiety and hunger.

The consequences of child trauma also include addiction to anti-depressants. Felitti noted that methamphetamine was the first anti-depressant put on the market in the 1940s by Burroughs Wellcome Company under the brand name Methedrine. Noting the current rampant addiction to methamphetamines, Felitti said he doesn't think it's coincidental that so many people are addicted to an anti-depressant.

The behavioral outcomes of trauma and addiction include domestic violence. What's surprising in this graph is that the higher a woman's ACE score, the more likely that she will be a perpetrator, said Felitti. Women's victims are their children.

With trauma and addiction affecting people's work lives, poverty is an outcome of child trauma, said Felitti.

This is the fifth in a series of posts that accompany questions from the simple version of the ACE Study questionnaire developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are 10 questions on the simple ACE Study questionnaire; we've posted them in five polls this week and we'll post the rest next week. Today is the fifth question. Each day I'll take a look at some of the research — ACE, brain development, and epigenetic — to provide more information and context. I encourage you to take the simple ACE test for yourself. There's also a link to the full 200-question survey.

Tagged: drugs, ACE Study, obesity, smoking, alcoholism, child trauma


devobrun 7 years, 2 months ago

What if bears could fly and their poop was explosive?

"Why are addictions so difficult to treat?"

Because the treatment is not what they want? Because they don't face death......really death if they don't stop?

And if they face death and they don't stop, should they die? No? Because we have civilized ourselves past reality?

I feel, therefore I am. Modern day Descartes.

So stop feeling and start seeing. People who choose to die should be allowed to. Cry. Pray. Tell them goodbye, and take pictures to show their bastards. Social Engineering is a failure. Admit it.

jestevens 7 years, 2 months ago

Hi, devobrun:

We'd love to see you continue posting. You provide useful information that's often starts conversations. But you'll have to use your real name from now on.

Feel free to contact me through this site or at if you have questions.

Irenaku 7 years, 2 months ago

This is a very interesting article. I am interested in knowing what the rate of successful recovery is for those who have suffered moderate to severe trauma in childhood and adolescence and who now, as adults, have begun treatment or recovery programs? In other words, can an individual become an emotionally/spiritually/mentally whole adult even if their brain was biologically stunted in terms of these same areas of development during childhood trauma?

jestevens 7 years, 2 months ago

That's a great question, Irenaku. I don't think anyone knows the answer to that. Most treatment or recovery programs focus on the substance from which people are trying to become un-addicted. Alcohol. Food. Cocaine. Sex. Research has been done on the effectiveness of different types of recovery programs. But there's no research yet that links experience of child trauma with success of recovery later in life.

There is research that's beginning to examine what happens when you intervene when a child has experienced trauma. And it's very positive. One study showed that early intervention after a traumatic event reduces the odds of PTSD in children by 73 percent --

The key is the making sure the intervention occurs in a timely manner. As the ACE Study results show, that's the challenge.

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