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#Researchforimpact: Wounds that time won't heal
Author: Research Division
Published: 10/09/2019

​​The scars of childhood trauma run much deeper than the actual abuse or neglect experienced by the child. Studies have revealed that they can have a lifelong effect on brain functioning. Now researchers at SU's Department of Psychiatry are studying the long-term effects of childhood trauma on local populations.

A postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS), Dr Georgina Spies, is unravelling the impact of childhood trauma in HIV positive women, while Lindi Martin is analysing its role in the development of anxiety disorders among high-school learners as part of her PhD studies.

Spies' study explores the impact of early childhood trauma and HIV on the brain. It has highlighted the need for trauma screening to be included in HIV care. People with HIV commonly experience cognitive deficits such as attention and memory disturbances, delayed reaction time and disturbance of executive functioning (the mental processes that enable people to plan, focus attention, remember instructions and juggle multiple tasks). Studies assessing early-life trauma have also revealed disturbances in brain function and structures. “The brain and behavioural changes that accompany early life trauma may result in additional complications related to the course of HIV disease in this vulnerable population," Spies says.

She is leading a long-term study in which the brain function and structure of more than 300 women from Cape Town are compared. Half of the women are HIV positive and the other half HIV negative. Each of the groups included women with and women without a history of childhood trauma. All of the women underwent neurocognitive assessment using a neuropsychological battery sensitive to the effects of HIV, as well as structural magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain volume. These tests were done at the onset of the study as well as one year later.

 “The most commonly reported childhood trauma type was emotional abuse, followed by emotional neglect, physical neglect, physical abuse and lastly sexual abuse. Results revealed that the average brain volume was significantly smaller in HIV positive women who had experienced childhood trauma, compared to the other three groups," Spies says.

Several regions of the brain were affected, including the domains associated with processing speed, working memory, executive function, motor skills, learning and verbal fluency. These effects were more pronounced in women living with both HIV and childhood trauma.

“This is the first study to assess the combined impact of HIV and trauma in women with more advanced disease. It highlights the potential contributory role of childhood trauma to brain volume alterations and neurocognitive decline in HIV-infected individuals. “These findings underline the need for trauma screening and for the integration of trauma-focused interventions in HIV care to improve outcomes in affected individuals," Spies explains. Her research is supported by the South African Research Chair (SARChI) in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).


*The article appears in the latest edition of the Stellenbosch University Research Publication. Click here to read more.