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April 2002Vol. 3, No. 3Researchers Find Biological Link Between Child Abuse and Increased Likelihood of Later Substance Abu

Researchers at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts have found a biological explanation as to why abused children are more likely to become substance abusers later in life.

The study focused on a region of the brain called the cerebellar vermis. Repeated sexual abuse was found to affect the blood flow to this region, thereby causing damage. The cerebellar vermis has an important role in people's emotional state, and it is also strongly affected by alcohol, cocaine, and other drugs. "Damage to this area of the brain may cause an individual to be particularly irritable, and to seek external means, such as drugs or alcohol, to quell this irritability," according to Carl Anderson, Ph.D., who was involved in the study.

Anderson and his colleagues measured resting brain blood flow in the cerebellar vermis of 32 participants, ages 18 to 22. In the 15 subjects that had a history of childhood abuse, the researchers measured lower blood flows. As reported in the January 2002 edition of Psychoneuroendrocrinology, researchers used information from this and another study of 537 drug-abusing college students to conclude that childhood abuse impairs the development of the cerebellar vermis; a function of which is to control the level of an individual's irritability. Such an individual is then more likely to use drugs to compensate for this lack of control.

Related Items

See the following related articles in these past issues of the Children's Bureau Express (

  • "Abused Children Susceptible to Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Problems as Adults" (January/February 2001)
  • "Guidance for Treating Substance Abusers Affected by Child Abuse and Neglect Issues" (April 2000)