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It is not news that physical and emotional abuse or other major traumatic events during the childhood years are associated with addictive behaviors later on in life. However, new findings from research at the University of Texas (U of T) are helping us to move closer to understanding the physiological reason why this tendency exists. Researchers discovered that traumatic events for kids may lead to particular alterations in brain functioning, causing interruptions in certain brain pathways associated with both drug abuse and depression in adolescents.

The U of T researchers studied 32 teenagers where 19 of the subjects had experienced trauma as children, but currently did not have a diagnosable mental health issue, while the other 13 participants had no history of trauma or mental illness.  The research team defined trauma by the following criteria:

  • Considerable abuse or neglect for more than a six-month period of time
  • Experienced a life-threatening illness
  • Observed domestic violence on a routine basis for a period of time
  • Loss of a parent before the age of 10 years old

The adolescents were evaluated every six months for a 3.5-year period. By the end of the study, half of the teens with a history of trauma had a substance abuse problem, depression or both, which was triple the rate seen in the control group.

Brain Imaging Gave Major Clues to Connection Between Trauma and Addiction

The teens underwent brain imaging to measure the strength of white matter connections throughout their brains at the beginning of the study before any mental disorders were apparent. Right from the start, the kids with a trauma history showed connectivity disturbances in particular brain regions including:

  • Superior longitudinal fasciculus (SLF):  involved in planning behavior and language processing
  • Right cingulum – hippocampus projection (CGH-R): connects areas of abstract thought and emotional processing to control an individual’s response to emotional stress

Study Finds Addiction Is About Avoiding Pain Rather Than Seeking Pleasure

This study echoes similar small-scale studies from the past. Now further research with larger sample groups are needed to ascertain the effects on a mass scale of trauma and brain functioning that can lead to addiction and depression as a child grows.

The U of T researchers’ conclusions do support the growing theory that individuals suffering from addiction are not morally corrupt pleasure seekers – rather, they are people struggling to manage painful emotions and use drugs as an escape mechanism. They also believe this may mean a combination of poor coping mechanisms for stressors in life paired with drug use is what triggers the addiction process for many individuals.

Do agree with the U of T research findings? Is addiction related to an inability to process emotional information effectively? Tell us your feelings below.

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