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The study, published recently in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, finds that emotional trauma at a young age may cause changes to the brain that are similar to head trauma.
The connection between emotional trauma’s and physical trauma’s effect on the brain is an increase in a protein called S100B. S100B is a protein usually found in the brain. But when the protein makes its way to the blood, this is a sign that the barrier that separates the brain from the rest of the body is leaky. This enables inflammatory compounds to make their way to the brain and perpetuate inflammation in the brain, often called neuroinflammation.
High levels of protein
Child psychiatrist Tatiana Falcone, MD, led the team of researchers who studied 105 children, 22 of whom were healthy adolescents. Patients were diagnosed with psychosis or mood disorder. Half of the patients in the group had different levels of emotional trauma.
“When we look at the levels of this protein S100B in patients who were exposed to emotional trauma, the levels were as high as any of those patients who have severe head trauma,” Dr. Falcone says.
In Europe, when someone who has experienced head trauma goes to the emergency department, doctors take a blood sample. The blood sample shows whether there is a spike in S100B.
If the level of S100B is normal, the patient is observed for four to six hours, then sent home to recover. If the protein level is elevated, it’s an indication that something is going on in the brain. Imaging tests follow to ensure something isn’t seriously wrong.
Dr. Falcone’s research team found that the same thing happens with emotional trauma as with physical trauma: the S100B protein levels are higher than normal. What’s more, the worse the trauma, the higher the levels of the S100B protein.
The researchers identified three important stressors that impact the intensity of the emotional trauma: how early in childhood the trauma occurred (if the trauma happen before age 8), the level of the trauma’s severity and whether the emotional trauma lasted longer than six months.
“Patients who experienced one trauma had an elevated level of S100B,” Dr. Falcone says. “Patients who identified with two or three stressors saw an even higher level.”
On-going research has studied various inflammatory markers in children with different psychiatric disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and psychoses, Dr. Falcone says.
Although her team’s study results suggest a childhood trauma could cause inflammation in the brain that’s similar to what is seen in concussion, this inflammation could linger. This could lead to long-term consequences such as the development of psychiatric disorders later.
Dr. Falcone hopes to use the findings to uncover a way to change the trajectory of emotional trauma in the brain so that medication or psychotherapy could prevent depression, psychosis or post-traumatic stress disorder from developing.
“Knowing the levels of any biological marker will help us identify patients at higher risk and suggest comprehensive, intensive treatment from the beginning,” Dr. Falcone says.
A similar study of soldiers who were exposed to intense stress reported similar findings of increase S100B protein.