Trauma Paves the Way

Can we stop poor outcomes by tracing trauma’s path in the brain? SCU’s Lindsay Halladay wants to map it.

Scientists already know that certain kinds of trauma can have long-lasting, often negative effects on a person’s life. What they haven’t quite figured out yet is how, and if, that trauma imprints on the brain. So Santa Clara assistant professor of psychology Lindsay Halladay wants to map it.

Both Halves Of Human Brain

Halladay and her students are specifically studying adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs.

These traumas occur before the age of 18 and include neglect or parental separation, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, and family violence. One in six American adults have experienced at least one of the high-risk traumas in their childhood, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

An adverse childhood experience increases one’s risk of depression, anxiety, and addiction in adulthood. It’s also related to lowered educational attainment and less job stability, as well as physical illnesses such as asthma, heart disease, cancer, and obesity.

Researchers have found that the more of these experiences a child has, the higher the risk.

“You see all kinds of abnormalities or behavioral deficits following chronic early life stress or even acute early life stress,” says Halladay. “There are all kinds of things that can stem from exposure to early trauma.”

As the link between trauma and disease has become increasingly clear over the past decade, public officials have launched campaigns to reduce children’s exposure to violence and other ACEs. But while limiting trauma is a laudable goal, protecting anyone entirely is impossible. Halladay says that understanding how trauma literally works in the brain may provide insights that help reduce its unavoidable impacts and bad outcomes.

In her lab, Halladay and her students are watching how mice respond to similar experiences. Their work is funded in part by the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation’s Young Investigator Grant—a two-year, $75,000 grant awarded to promising young scientists who are making groundbreaking discoveries in neurobiological research.

Halladay Lab researchers simulate parent separation for mice pups and monitor brain function in response to social situations. Scientists already know that mice separated from their mothers spend less time socializing with others. The question remains why.

“Are social interactions less rewarding to an individual who experienced stress?” asks Halladay. “Or is there social aversion? Is it just anxiety-provoking, or do they receive less pleasure from these interactions?”

Those two responses follow two different pathways in the brain. By watching to see which part of a mouse’s brain lights up in response to social situations after simulated parental separation, Halladay hopes to learn how such childhood trauma changes the way the brain operates.

With that information, researchers may be able to find treatments, such as medications that amplify pleasure responses or turn down anxiety for people exposed to childhood traumas.

“We’re probably pretty far off from being able just to alter people’s brains to quote-unquote fix problems,” Halladay says. “But this research could point scientists in the right direction.”

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