June 06, 2007

Children's Vulnerable Brains and Mental Health

Research over the past decade has shown that the early childhood experiences can have a significant impact on the long-term brain development and mental health of people. Neuroscientists now know that people are born with certain genes and biological predispositions (due to conditions and stress in the womb, nutrition during pregnancy, and birth experiences, etc.). But research also shows that these genetic and biological predispositions only come into play if a child is exposed to certain environmental factors and stresses; and the more exposure, the greater the chance of mental health problems developing.

The good news from all this research is that it is pointing the way for families with a history of mental health problems to lower their risk of mental health problems and illnesses in the future with child care and child educational approaches (i.e. how to take positive perspectives on challenges and stresses the child faces, and about how street drug use increases the risk of mental illness) that takes this new knowledge into consideration.

A new story in a British medical web site explains in greater detail how and why child brains are vulnerable, and how to avoid increasing the risk of mental illness and other development problems. The story notes that for children:

The wrong stimulation - neglect or abuse - leads to altered brain growth, affecting in particular the regions associated with the regulation of emotion, the ability to empathise and the way we handle stress.

The story is a rather technically advanced in some areas (perhaps best for people who have some science background), but its a good story if you're interested in learning more about how and why attentive and sensitive child care is important. We also have some less technical news story on related topics below. While the story focuses on the behavioral problems that are commonly linked to child neglect or abuse, schizophrenia researchers also tell us that it is likely that the same factors greatly increase the risk for schizophrenia in children who have predisposing genes or biological factors.

Read the full story: Vulnerable Brains (from Hospital Doctor web site)

While this story focuses on the parental care factors that are thought to have very significant influences on brain development and mental health, there are other factors that can also influence mental health, including school and perceived social environment stresses, drug abuse, toxin exposure and other factors. (see the schizophrenia environmental contributing factors and schizophrenia prevention for more complete lists). Its important to note that while parents may not be able to prevent many stresses that a child is exposed to, parents can learn to teach and coach children on effective ways of interpreting events or stressful situations in positive ways - and these better coping strategies result in much lower stress for the child. See the section on our web site that covers this important area: Childcare Factors in Mental Health.

Related Reading:

Tactics for Lowering the Risk of, and Preventing, Schizophrenia in your Children

Childcare, Genetics, Epigenetics and Schizophrenia

The Neuropsychology of the Playground (How Parenting Styles Impact Child Brain Development)


"biological predispositions only come into play if a child is exposed to certain environmental factors and stresses"

ONLY?????? NO ES CIERTO! This is very wrong! Very loved babies who are very loved are even born this way with no stress except that from birth. Birth is stressful. Teased at school when different is very stressful. You cannot remove all stress unless you do not allow the birth or only cut baby out of mother, then keep baby in bubble whole life but that would be stress also.
Maybe you the author want to believe that your baby will not get it because you will love your baby and protect baby but you are WRONG because these babies get it anyway!

Posted by: serafina at June 6, 2007 11:37 AM

OK - I read the article and did not see anything remotely talking about severe psychiatric illnesses. The only part referring to the "only" triggered by certain environmental factors and stresses was aggression.

I actually agree with serafina. Some people are simply born either with the illness or so vulnerable to stress or drugs or whatever that it is only a matter of time. Eventually that loved protected child is going to encounter ridicule or bullying or tests at school, a tough paper to write or a difficult boss at work, or even an unfaithful spouse.

Mental "health" is so different than a severe psychiatric disorder such as schizophrenia. In fact many people with this illness are the most mentally HEALTHY individuals I know because if my senses had me experience what theirs do - I think I would be be "insane" and they are NOT "insane" - many are dealing in a very SANE way to a very difficult situation and what their perceptions perceive.


Posted by: Naomi at June 6, 2007 11:49 AM

I have thought about Serafina's comments and why the topic of "baby's brain" and "mental health" is so disturbing to so many people when talking about severe psychiatric illnesses.

I think that the problem is several-fold, the first is the term "mental". Second is the misunderstanding of "environmental" triggers and how that relates to "nurture" vs "nature".

Remove the word "mental" and just leave the word "illness". Many MANY illnesses, if not MOST are in part "environmental". Relatively few are purely genetic. Yet with these illnesses, there is no harping on babies' brains - yet these other illnesses from cancer to multiple sclerosis, to arthritis are also the interaction of genes and environment. Shoring up a baby's MENTAL, emotional, HEALTH helps these illnesses as well - HELPS to prevent some cases later in life, but still cannot PREVENT them all because there are so many other factors that simply nurturing the baby cannot avoid. These factors include the placental placement, whether there is too much pollution in the air, the fact that the kid won't eat his/her vegetables, the fact that the poor kid got exposed to some virus, gets into a car accident, stayed in the sun too long, is sensitive to plastics and the estrogen-mimicking chemicals, etc. etc. etc. etc.

It will be nice when the underlying biological processes are known in order to create truly effective preventions and treatments because "mental health" affects ALL non-purely genetic illnesses, period. Focussing on nurturing the baby is NOT what is entirely meant by "nurture" when it comes to illnesses that really have nothing to do with "MENTAL" such as cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and most types of schizophrenia (there may be some cases that may be "mental" since, after all, there are cases called "schizophrenia" from severe trauma, just as there are cases called "schizophrenia" from hormones and cases called "schizophrenia" from drugs).

So, Serafina, and anyone else perturbed by these "baby brains" articles, filter out the word "mental" and simply read the articles as being generic about illness, although some really are geared towards emotional and behavioural problems in children (and adults!). Unfortunately, illnesses affecting the brain still get lumped in the same bucket as kids who get aggressive because there is aggression at home, and that aggression can be changed with some behaviour modification and better "nurturing". Yes - that is environment and nurture, yet is on a different level than what is going on with the cases of cancer, diabetes, schizophrenia and MS... but there you have it - schizophrenia is separated out from cancer, diabetes, etc...

But yes, BAD, traumatic, abusing baby-hoods increases cytokines - an inflammatory marker which later increases risk of ALL these illnesses and even alzheimer's. Yes - we can get these illnesses even though we had wonderful nurturing as babies. Most of humanity get them anyway even though we had very normal upbringings. Most parents would NOT purposely expose babies to abuse and trauma as it goes against survival of our species.


Posted by: Naomi at June 8, 2007 07:37 AM


The reason I think these stories are important is because they are extremely useful for families with a history of schizophrenia or other mental illness and they offer a path towards greatly reducing the risk in future children.

In my discussions with researchers they are increasingly saying that "schizophrenia risk genes" (or any mental illness genes) - make a child more sensitive to the environment. This means that there is a great potential that if we can take greater care in managing the social, emotional, nutritional and chemical environment of our children (and teach them how to deal with different stresses in a positive way) - there is an extremely good chance that they won't get schizophrenia or other mental illness. This is huge and very positive news for the next generation.

This information isn't really relevant to situations where schizophrenia or other mental illness has occured already or in the past - because its all about the issue of risk management and lowering probabilities - and its impossible to say what unique combination of genes, nutrition, stresses and toxins caused a given case of mental illness.

When parents and family members read this information - I hope that they'll think that is good news for their extended family that they might want to pass on - and not get into blaming on what might or might not have caused any mental illness in the past.

Posted by: SzAdministrator at June 8, 2007 01:17 PM

"there is an extremely good chance that they won't get schizophrenia or other mental illness. "

Remove the word "mental" to check if it is true. You will find that if you substitute "better" for "an extremely good" that statement has more validity.

" ... there is better chance that they won't get schizophrenia or other illness. "

It makes all the difference.

It is just as possible that IF we could remove all the harmful things in the environment affecting physical and mental health that there would be a better chance that all non-purely genetic illnesses would be eliminated.

IF. Viruses. Chemicals. Kids teasing at school. Developing techniques to actually re-wire and heal or grow portions of the brain responsible for mood, hormones, sleep, allergies, recognizing faces, learning disabilities, eye sight.

Illnesses. Cancer. Diabetes. Narcolepsy. Hypothalamic-pituitary axis dysfunctions. Schizophrenia. Multiple Sclerosis.


I DO find it heartening that some new findings may lower the risk, because, often too late - we find out that things like medications the doctor gave, like a decongestant or ADHD medication may have triggered the illness. Some kids MIGHT be saved by doctors not giving the wrong meds to these kids.

We talk about teaching the children to handle "stress". And the resilient brain - yet one underlying factor is these brains lack some resiliency and are therefore overly affected. I would like that underlying factor fixed.

The biggest stress factors for my child were her migraines, her allergies, the other kids at school teasing her for her Tourettes, and trying to overcome learning disabilities.

If THOSE factors had been eliminated her life would have been so much more wonderful. Factors such as teaching the children in public schools acceptance of differences. Catching LDs earlier and intervening earlier. The antihistamine Singulair has tremendously helped my daughter;s allergies but it did not exist when she was little.

THOSE interventions would have reduced the stress in my daughter's life.

Oh yeah - another source of stress? The TIME therapy took each week when what she wanted to be doing was homework and music.

"Mental health" seems to be discussed so much more when talking about schizophrenia/schizoaffective disorder yet...
mental health -- or the lack of it -- had nothing to do with the development of many types of schizophrenia spectrum illnesses, because the illness is not mental.

Mental health helped my daughter (and others) DEAL with the illness and be a survivor -- just like mental health helps with ALL illnesses.

It is the wording that can be offensive.

Many of us have children who were quite mentally healthy, yet developed schizophrenia/schizoaffective disorder. Their strong mental HEALTH helped them survive this devastating illness with their mental health intact in spite of the illness that affected their brain. For some, the illness referred to as "mental illness" happened while they were mentally healthy, which is why there seems to be this disconnect between mental health or the lack of it, and the development of this illness.

How can it even be called a “mental” illness when they were quite mentally HEALTHY when they got it, and were still MENTALLY healthy while they battled to survive in spite of altered perceptions?

It is like saying a person with rheumatoid arthritis got it because they lacked mental health. It is true that severe mental stresses and severe childhood traumas and abuse can harm the brain and set up the inflammatory substrate that may leave them more predisposed to getting rheumatoid arthritis down the line, but we don't focus on stopping child abuse and bad home environment as a preventative measure for rheumatoid arthritis.

Hmmm…. Maybe we should...

But obviously even the people from great home environments also get rheumatoid arthritis, MS, cancer, etc... so their families may get just as irked by harping on mental health as a preventative measure for those illnesses. Actually though - it really would be just as valid.

Mental health IS helpful for ALL these illnesses even though most of them are not in the bucket called "mental" and so many other environmental factors affect the outcome.


Posted by: Naomi at June 10, 2007 06:51 AM

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