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Four children playing tug-of-war

Researchers conducting a large research programme in the DPUK Data Portal are looking into how childhood experiences of adversity affect brain health right across the lifespan.

Brain health: a lifetime story

Poverty, emotional abuse and sexual abuse are traumatic experiences that some children grow up with. Psychologists group these using the term 'adverse childhood experiences' (ACEs) – and DPUK researchers are uncovering new evidence on the extent to which they impact upon brain health across the entire lifespan. The research is reinforcing understanding that dementia prevention may need to begin in childhood.

Psychologists now understand that ACEs are not solely a feature of child mental health. Increasingly, studies are showing that ACEs associate with health outcomes later in life, including risk of dementia. However, it's not a simple story: adversity in childhood often comprises an enormous set of interlinking difficult circumstances. The DPUK researchers are tackling these cumulative effects comprehensively, for the first time.

Going back in time in the data

The research team, led by senior DPUK scientist Dr Sarah Bauermeister, is using 13 cohorts in the DPUK Data Portal to investigate the links between early childhood experiences and later-life dementia. They are tackling different angles: one recently published paper demonstrates how ACEs are linked with visible shrinkage of certain parts of the brain; other researchers are focused on ACEs' specific impact on cognition and educational attainment.

Working with diverse yet comparable data in the DPUK Data Portal allows the researchers to deal with the complexity that is intrinsic to this area of study. That's why quality long-term cohort data is such a crucial piece of the puzzle. Making these sorts of comparisons and links is something that has never been done at scale before.

Childhood adversity and dementia: what is going on in the brain?

There are a few theories as to why ACEs trigger brain degeneration. One is that impaired mental health as a result of early childhood adversity could lead to mental illness down the line, which is associated with an increased risk of dementia. Another possibility is that the stress induced by ACEs may have a physical impact on the brain.

The researchers on this project are seeing that early childhood experiences of adversity are a strong predictor of midlife stress and poor mental health – factors associated with dementia. By demonstrating these links, the research is building on the body of evidence which bolsters the call to prioritise good mental health right across the lifespan.