Essex University Conducts the World’s Largest Child Trauma Study

sad little girl

The world’s largest brain study of childhood trauma has revealed how it affects development and rewires vital pathways. The study uncovered a disruption in neural networks involved in self-focus and problem-solving. This means under-18s who experienced abuse may struggle with emotions, empathy and understanding their bodies.

Dr Klabunde worked with Dr Anna Hughes, also from the Department of Psychology, and Masters student Rebecca Ireton on the study at Essex University. Dr Klabunde’s cutting-edge research used AI to re-examine hundreds of brain scans and identify patterns. It is hoped the research will help hone new treatments for children who have endured mistreatment.

Dr Klabunde said: “Currently, science-based treatments for childhood trauma primarily focus on addressing the fearful thoughts and avoidance of trauma triggers. This is a very important part of trauma treatment. However, our study has revealed that we are only treating one part of the problem. Even when a child who has experienced trauma is not thinking about their traumatic experiences, their brains are struggling to process their sensations within their bodies. This influences how one thinks and feels about one’s ‘internal world’ and this also influences one’s ability to empathize and form relationships.”

Dr Klabunde hopes this study will be a springboard to find out more about how trauma affects developing minds.

She said: “Our brain findings indicate that childhood trauma treatments appear to be missing an important piece of the puzzle. In addition to preventing avoidance of scary situations and addressing one’s thoughts, trauma therapies in children should also address how trauma impacts one’s body, sense of self, emotional/empathetic processing, and relationships. This is important to do so since untreated symptoms will likely contribute to other health and mental health problems throughout their lifespan.”

The findings of this study affirm what we have seen to be true in the lives of the students that we work with. Trauma impacts thoughts but it also is reflected in bodily sensations, the ability to process and how relationships are or are not built with family and others. If untreated, the trajectory towards other mental health problems become more serious.

Our schools and treatment centers are overwhelmed with this multiplex of trauma’s impact. Our approaches need to be broadened to include a more holistic view of what trauma does in the brain development of students. In so many cases there is little or no treatment at all. If there is lack of understanding of these factors or a mislabeling of what is really going on for a student, then the approaches to their therapy will not be adequate to have meaningful impact which could lead to a lifetime of mental health problems.

I appreciate the work of Dr. Klabunde and her associates. Hopefully it will set the stage for an expansion of understanding and ensuing treatment pathways that will properly assess both the demands and the therapeutic approaches to address the needs effectively. Clearly, we have a lot to consider as we deal with the impact of childhood trauma and how to bring healing to their lives.

Gerry Vassar


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