Adverse Childhood Experiences 2: Out on a Limb

We are approaching a seismic shift in psychiatry. I am now going out of a limb to predict the direction we will go in.

The allopathic medical community will resist, including many psychiatrists. But it is the neurobiologists and brain imaging and psychiatrists who will prevail. If the creek don’t rise and we aren’t hit by a giant asteroid, nuclear winter, devolve into fighting over the remaining arable land as the world heats up….

I have been thinking about this all through my career, but especially since the lecture on adverse childhood experiences, which I heard in Washington, DC about ten years ago. I wrote about that lecture on January 6, 2015. The lecturer was a woman. She said that it appeared that the brain formed differently in response to childhood adverse experiences. She said that we don’t yet know what to do with this information.

Staggering understatement. I went from that lecture to one about ADHD. The lecturer was male. He said, “Children diagnosed with ADHD have brains that are different from normal children on PET scans and functional MRIs. We don’t understand this.” He sounded puzzled. I thought, he didn’t go to the previous lecture….

Childhood adverse experiences are scored zero to seven. I score a five. I am at high risk for addiction. I assumed this when I realized at age 19 that my father was an alcoholic and my mother was enabling. I was very very careful about alcohol. I tried pot twice and didn’t like it. I refused to try anything else, and refused benzodiazepines when I was depressed: they are addictive. With an ACE score of five, I am also at higher risk than a person with a score of zero for ALL mental health diagnosis: ADHD, depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc. People with a score of five had a 60% chance of being diagnosed with depression compared with a 10% chance in people with a score of zero over the life of the study. In the last fourteen years I’ve only been diagnosed with a “grief reaction” which is a temporary reaction to grief. It is also called an adjustment disorder. High adverse childhood experience scores are also at higher risk for morbidity and mortality from heart disease, emphysema, arthritis, basically everything and tend to die younger.

What this means, I think, is that our brains are plastic in utero and in childhood: the wiring is put down in response to the environment. This is adaptation. I have crisis wiring: my mother had tuberculosis when I was conceived and born. Really, from an evolutionary standpoint I AM weird: babies whose mothers had tuberculosis died. Quickly. I was saved because my mother coughed blood one month before I was due. A lot of blood. She thought she had lung cancer and would die. The fetus is bathed in those stress hormones, grief, fear….

I was removed from my mother at birth to save my life. I then was removed from people at 4 months and at 9 months. I grew up trying to be independent and highly suspicious of adults.

I predict that we are going to revamp all of our ideas about mental health. The brain wiring is set up depending on the environment, physical and emotional, that the child grows up in. My friend Johanna was outraged in college when we learned that the fetus and placenta basically take over the hormones of the woman for 9 months. “I’m not letting some baby grow in me and do that!” Johanna said. “I am going to figure out how to implant the pregnancy in a cow. You take good care of the cow and you can drink beer through the whole pregnancy! The cow won’t even notice when the baby falls out!” She has three children, an MD and a PhD in genetics. She did not use a cow.

The brain wiring is an adaptation to the environment. If there is war or domestic violence or addiction or mental health problems, the child’s brain kicks in emergency wiring. This is to help the child survive this childhood. As an adult they are then more at risk for mental health disorders, addiction and physical health disorders.

In the end, the sins of the parents, or the terrible circumstances of the parents, are visited upon the children. We have to take care of the children from the start in order to be healthy.

And people who have low adverse childhood experience scores don’t understand. They grew up with nice people and in a nice environment. They wonder why people can’t just be nice. The fear and grief and suspicion and emotional responses that appear maladaptive in adults, that is what helped people survive their childhoods. That is what I remember each time I see an addict in clinic, or someone who is on multiple psychiatric medicines, or someone who is acting out.