The brains of children are affected by family violence in the same way as combat affects soldiers, according to a study. In both cases the brain becomes increasingly wary of potential threats.
For children, the changes may increase susceptibility to mental health problems, say experts from University College London (UCL) and the Anna Freud Centre.
Children who suffer abuse or witness domestic violence are known to be at greater risk of anxiety and depression in later life.
Scientists carried out magnetic resonance imaging brain scans on 20 London children with an average age of 12 who had been exposed to documented violence at home. All had been referred to local social services.
While in the scanner, the children were shown pictures of male and female faces with sad, calm or angry expressions. Their patterns of brain activity were compared with those of 23 matched children with no history of family violence.
The children exposed to violence responded in a distinct way to angry faces, the study found. Their brains showed heightened activation in two regions associated with threat detection, the anterior insula and amygdala.