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Brains of abused teenagers show ‘encouraging’ ability to regulate emotions

Study published in the looks at patterns of emotion regulation in the brains of aged 13-19 years who have been abused

Children who have been abused typically experience more than their peers who have not been abused. This is often considered a byproduct of living in volatile, dangerous environments. A recent study published in the Journal of the (JAACAP) set to find out what happens when these children are taught how to regulate their emotions. Could that better help them cope with difficult situations?

The team of researchers from the studied what happens in the brains of abused children (ages 13-19) when they viewed emotional images, and then tried to control their responses to them. The researchers found that with a little guidance, these children have a surprising ability to regulate their emotions.

“They were just as able [as peers who were not abused] to modulate their emotional responses when they were taught strategies for doing so,” said Kate McLaughlin, lead author and Professor of Psychology at Washington University..

The study involved 42 boys and girls age 13 to 19, half of whom had been physically and/or sexually abused. The researchers tracked the teens’ as they were shown a series of photographs.

The teens were first shown neutral, positive and negative images and instructed to let their emotions unfold naturally. Then they were shown more photos and told to try to regulate their responses. The children were taught cognitive reappraisal, a strategy that involves thinking about a situation differently to alter the emotional response to it.

In both exercises, the positive images generated little difference in brain activity between the two groups. But when looking at negative images, the maltreated teens had more activity in brain regions involved in identifying potential threats, including the amygdala, than the control group. Though it was more difficult for them, the maltreated teens were able to modulate activity in the amygdala as well as the participants with no history of abuse.

“This has promising implications for treatment”, said McLaughlin. “Since the strategies participants used in the study are similar to those used in trauma therapy. Specifically, cognitive reappraisal, the strategy children used to regulate their emotions in the study, is a core technique used in trauma-focused treatments for children.”