A tumultuous family life may stunt a child’s brain development in ways leading to later mental health problems in adulthood.

Although much attention is paid to families in which abuse occurs, the mere exposure to emotional dysfunction in the home — including problems with communication, lack of affection, and unresolved tension among family members — may adversely affect a child’s crucial early brain growth. Investigators from the University of East Anglia in England say such family problems may hamper growth of the cerebellum, a brain area associated with learning, stress regulation, and sensory-motor control.

"These findings are important because exposure to adversities in childhood and adolescence is the biggest risk factor for later psychiatric disease," psychologist Nicholas Walsh, told the media in a statement.

To date, scientists have studied primarily the ramifications of severe abuse and neglect on child development — leaving much unknown about the effects of negative emotional environments as a distinct factor. But by using brain imaging technology, Walsh and her colleagues scanned the brains of 58 tenagers, ages 17 to 19, whose parents were asked to divulge any negative events their kids had experienced to the age of 11. Based on those reports and past self-reports from the teenagers, investigators divided the participants neatly into two groups — essentially, those from “good” families and those from “bad.”

Among those experiencing mild to moderate family problems in life, investigators observed by age 11 a smaller cerebellum, which scientists say is common in nearly all instances of mental illness. Those teenagers were more likely to have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder or to have a parent who had been diagnosed, the investigators said.

"We show that exposure in childhood and early adolescence to even mild to moderate family difficulties, not just severe forms of abuse, neglect and maltreatment, may affect the developing adolescent brain," Walsh said. "We also argue that a smaller cerebellum may be an indicator of mental health issues later on. Reducing exposure to adverse social environments during early life may enhance typical brain development and reduce subsequent mental health risks.”

Interestingly, the brain may grow naturally in ways to protect children from the adverse effects of a bad home environment. Teenagers who’d reported adverse life events at age 14 experienced some brain growth lacking in teenagers living a more sheltered existence. Moreover, emotional challenges during critical periods of development may improve one’s later emotional resilience into adulthood, the investigators speculated.

"This study helps us understand the mechanisms in the brain by which exposure to problems in early-life leads to later psychiatric issues," Walsh said. "It not only advances our understanding of how the general psychosocial environment affects brain development, but also suggests links between specific regions of the brain and individual psychosocial factors."

The investigators cautioned, however, that the study only proves an association between adverse life events and developmental changes in brain growth among teenagers, with root causes remaining a scientific mystery.

Source: Walsh, Nicholas. General And Specific Effects Of Early-Life Psychosocial Adversities On Adolescent Grey Matter Volume. NeuroImage: Clinical. 2014.