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A recent study funded by the Medical Research Council found that complex trauma or consistent child abuse can cause cognitive impairment and psychopathy. In the study, researchers planned to compare complex and no-complex trauma to determine if they carry the same risk of future mental illness.

The researchers used psychiatric information from E-risk, which tracked 2,232 subjects who were children in Wales and England born between 1994 and 1995. Some of the subjects had experienced repeated abuse in their childhood, which led to complex trauma.

The link between non-complex trauma and cognitive issues

While some of the subjects had experienced repeated child abuse, the rest were victims of non-complex trauma like car accidents, cognitive challenges and mental disorders. It was when they turned 18 that the subjects were asked about their childhood trauma.

Results showed that subjects who had experienced a lot of complex trauma were at a more significant risk of developing a mental disorder when compared to those with non-complex trauma and those who were not exposed to any trauma.

Researchers also found out that many subjects had been exposed to complex trauma at the age of 5. This finding proves that in early childhood, children are more vulnerable to complex trauma and cognitive issues.

Scientists found that many early childhood vulnerabilities measured at the age of 5 predicted exposure to complex trauma. However, they did not predict exposure to non-complex trauma. These childhood vulnerabilities explain the link between exposure to trauma and cognitive impairments.

Early childhood vulnerability

According to Andrea Danese, a professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at King’s IoPPN, not all cognitive disorders experienced by people who are exposed to complex trauma are as a result of their trauma. Some of the pre-existing vulnerabilities that lead to an increased risk of complex trauma can be responsible for cognitive impairment. Therefore, physicians need to treat these vulnerabilities instead of making assumptions about complex trauma.

However, the researchers found that these vulnerabilities did not explain the mental health problems linked with complex trauma. The features of trauma, such as severity and its response to it, could lead to a mental health disorder.