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Childhood Sexual Trauma Alters Emotional Regulation and Brain Development


Thursday, June 25, 2020

​​​​​Traumatic experiences during childhood have the ability to disrupt long-term brain development and function. Advances in imaging technology have shown us that not all traumatic experiences do this in the same way. Sexual trauma, in particular, severely alters how the brain responds to perceived threats as the child learns to deal with the terrible experience.

Karina Blair, Ph.D​. is a behavioral neuroscientist at Boys Town National Research Hospital, and an e​xpert in the area of how trauma affects brain development. She has been using functional brain imaging (fMRI) to investigate the areas of the brain that are involved in trauma, and especially looking for changes that persist long after specific events and relative to different types of trauma.

Much of the literature on post-traumatic stress is focused on the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped region in the brain that is associated with emotional responding and fear. In a recent paper, Dr. Blair was interested in how other regions that may also be involved might also be altered.

For this study, Dr. Blair worked with 23 adolescents who had reported sexual trauma, and 24 adolescents who had not experienced significant trauma as comparisons. Participants were placed in an fMRI scanner that allowed her to measure increases or decreases in brain function in specific anatomical regions while they were shown either threatening or neutral images.

Dr. Blair and her team identified several areas of increased activation during threatening stimuli. These areas of the brain were in the frontal lobe that we know are involved in emotional responding and regulation that are also necessary for understanding social situations. The data appears to suggest that past sexual abuse may cause exaggerated responses when these kids are exposed to stimuli that are perceived as threatening, or potentially threatening.

Dr. Blair's work helps clinicians at Boys Town Hospital, and elsewhere, understand what has happened to the brains of children after trauma. It's a useful tool for selecting and developing appropriate treatment plans. Unfortunately, these kids also end up in trouble more frequently. Understanding that, unless they get the right help, their brains have been altered for the long-term, if not permanently. This shows the critical need to help children get the right help and not punish them for things beyond their control.

For over 100 years Boys Town has been treating and advocating for children under these and other terribl​e circumstances. Our research team is critical to our efforts to provide the best care possible for these youth.​

Read more about the Center for Neurobehavioral Research at Boys Town.


  1. Blair, K. S., Bashford-Largo, J., Shah, N., et. al. (2020) Sexual Abuse in Adolescents Is Associated With Atypically​ Increased Responsiveness Within Regions Implicated in Self-Referential and Emotional Processing to Approaching Animate Threats. Front. Psychiatry;

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