Childhood trauma has been linked to reduced gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels. According to new research by the University of Roehampton London, this inhibitory neurotransmitter enables the mind to relax and fall asleep.
GABA is an amino acid that operates as a neurotransmitter for the central nervous system. It inhibits certain brain signals and decreases excitability in the nervous system. Reducing excitability significantly reduces stress, anxiety, and fatigue and ensures good quality sleep in humans.
The study led by Dr Piril Hepsomali, senior lecturer of the school of psychology at the University of Roehampton London, conducted MRI scans on 56 young adults split into two groups showing high childhood trauma and low childhood trauma. The research measured levels of GABA within the left superior temporal gyrus (STG) area of the brain and measured the volume of the STG in both groups, which plays a role in the perception of facial expressions of emotions and auditory processing.
The high childhood trauma group participants were likelier to have reduced GABA concentrations in the STG than those in the low childhood trauma group. The research also found that participants with a smaller STG volume and reduced GABA concentrations were significantly more likely to be in the high childhood trauma group.
This is the first human-based study to show a link between a decreased GABA, STG volume of the brain, and childhood trauma. Specifically, the study found it highly likely that the reduced size of the STG in those who have suffered childhood trauma leads to lower levels of GABA, impacting the brain’s ability to regulate emotionally and leading to a higher chance of developing mental illnesses such as anxiety disorder.
The research adds to the previously conducted animal-based research finding that early-life exposure to stress leads to lower levels of GABA concentration and increased anxiety and depressive-like behaviour in adulthood.
Childhood trauma is an event experienced by a child that evokes fear and often is violent, dangerous or life-threatening in nature. Examples include physical, psychological or sexual abuse, family or community violence, sudden loss of a loved one, serious accidents, or life-threatening illness.
Childhood trauma has also been linked to people having a higher risk of developing mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, psychosis, and schizophrenia.
Dr Piril Hepsomali, the study’s lead researcher, commented: “This research has broken new ground in analysing the impact of childhood trauma on the human brain. While further studies are essential, the evidence suggests that those who suffer trauma in early life are more likely to suffer from stress-based mental illness in adulthood. We must use the findings in this study to prompt greater research to help us further understand the impact of childhood trauma on the brain, helping shape healthcare and policy on the prevention and treatment of mental illness.”
The research team also included Sandra Machon from the University of Roehampton London, Holly Barker from the University of Roehampton London, Dr David Lythgoe from Kings College London, Professor Kenneth Hugdahl from the University of Bergen, Maria Gudbrandsen from the University of Roehampton London and Dr Paul Allen, from Kings College London.