FRIDAY, Feb. 21, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Exposure to common family problems early in life can impair a child's brain development, according to new research.
Tension between parents, arguments and lack of affection or communication between family members can affect growth of the cerebellum, a brain area involved in skill learning, stress regulation and sensory-motor control, the researchers found. This might lead to mental health problems for children later in life, the researchers said.
"These findings are important because exposure to adversities in childhood and adolescence is the biggest risk factor for later psychiatric disease," study leader Dr Nicholas Walsh, a lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of East Anglia, England, said in a university news release.
Previous studies have focused on the effects of severe abuse and neglect, but this study found common and ongoing family problems can also cause psychiatric ills in young people.
Using brain imaging technology, the researchers examined the brains of 58 teenagers between 17 and 19 years old. The teens' parents were asked to report any negative events their children had experienced between birth and age 11. Nearly half of the children -- 27 -- were classified as having been exposed to childhood family problems. When the teens were 14 and 17, they were also asked about any troubles they, their friends or their family faced over the course of the past year.
The study, published recently in NeuroImage: Clinical, found the teens who faced mild to moderate family troubles from the time they were born until age 11 had a smaller cerebellum.
The study's authors pointed out that a smaller cerebellum is found in just about all cases of mental illness.
The researchers noted the teens who faced family problems early in life were more likely to have a diagnosed mental illness, have a parent with a mental health disorder and have negative views of their family life.
"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," noted Walsh.
"We also argue that a smaller cerebellum may be an indicator of mental health issues later on," Walsh added. Reducing exposure to adverse social environments during early life may enhance typical brain development and reduce subsequent mental health risks, she said.
The researchers also found that teens who reported negative life events at age 14 had increases in certain areas of the brain. This could indicate that mild stress faced later during development could protect teens and help them cope with more troubles later in life, the researchers suggested. They noted the level of stress and when it occurs could play an important role in how this happens.
"This study helps us understand the mechanisms in the brain by which exposure to problems in early-life leads to later psychiatric issues," added Walsh. "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 study only shows an association between family troubles and teen's brain size, not a direct cause-and-effect relationship.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more on the environment and brain development.