Corporal punishment affects brain activity, anxiety and depression
Abstract: Corporal punishment increases the risk of developing anxiety and depression in adolescents, researchers report. In addition, corporal punishment changes brain activity and affects brain development.
Don’t hit your children. That’s the conventional wisdom borne out of decades of research linking corporal punishment to worsening adolescent health and negative behavioral effects, including increased risk of anxiety and depression.
Now, a new study investigates how corporal punishment can influence nervous systems to produce these harmful effects.
Corporal punishment can be simply defined as “the intentional infliction of physical pain by any means for the purpose of punishment, correction, discipline, instruction, or any other purpose.” This violence, especially when perpetrated by a parent, causes a complex emotional experience.
The researchers, led by Kreshnik Burani, MS, and working with Greg Hajcak, Ph.D., at Florida State University, wanted to understand the neural basis of that experience and its downstream consequences.
The study appears in Biological psychiatry: cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging.
Researchers conducted a longitudinal study of 149 boys and girls ages 11 to 14 from the Tallahassee, FL area. Participants performed a video game-like task and a coin guessing game while undergoing continuous recording of electroencephalography, or EEG – a non-invasive technique for measuring brain wave activity on the scalp.
From the EEG data, the researchers determined two scores for each participant—one reflecting their neural response to the error and the other reflecting their neural response to the reward.
Two years later, participants and their parents completed a series of questionnaires to screen for anxiety and depression and to assess parenting style. As expected, children who experienced corporal punishment were more likely to develop anxiety and depression.
“Our work first replicates the well-known negative effect that corporal punishment has on child well-being: we found that corporal punishment is associated with increased anxiety and depressive symptoms in adolescence. However, our study goes further to show that corporal punishment can affect brain activity and neurodevelopment,” said Burani.
This was reflected in a greater neural response to error and blunted response to reward in adolescents who received physical punishment.
“Specifically,” Burani added, “our work links corporal punishment with increased neural sensitivity to making mistakes and decreased neural sensitivity to receiving rewards in adolescence.
In previous and ongoing work with Dr. Hajcak, we see that increased neural response to errors is associated with anxiety and risk for anxiety, while decreased neural response to rewards is associated with depression and risk for depression.
Corporal punishment can therefore alter specific neurodevelopmental pathways that increase the risk of anxiety and depression by making children hypersensitive to their own mistakes and less reactive to rewards and other positive events in their environment.
Cameron Carter, MD, Editor Biological psychiatry: cognitive neuroscience and neuroimagingsaid of the findings, “Using EEG, this study provides new insights into the mechanisms that may underlie the adverse effects of corporal punishment on children’s mental health, as well as the neural systems that may be affected.”
The work provides new clues about the neural basis of depression and anxiety and could help guide interventions for at-risk youth.
About this neurodevelopmental research news
Original research: Closed access.
“Corporal punishment is uniquely associated with a stronger neural response to errors and a dampened neural response to rewards in adolescenceKreshnik Burani et al. Biological psychiatry: cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging
Corporal punishment is uniquely associated with a stronger neural response to errors and a dampened neural response to rewards in adolescence
Although corporal punishment is a common form of punishment with known negative effects on health and behavior, it is relatively unknown how such punishment affects neurocognitive systems.
To address this issue, we examined how corporal punishment affects neural measures of error and reward processing in 149 adolescent boys and girls aged 11–14 years (Mage = 11.02, SDage = 1.16). Lifetime corporal punishment was assessed using the Stress and Adversity Inventory (STRAIN). Additionally, participants completed a flanker task and a reward task to measure error-related negativity (ERN) and reward positivity (RewP), respectively, as well as measures of anxiety and depression symptoms.
As hypothesized, participants with a lifetime experience of corporal punishment reported more symptoms of anxiety and depression. Experience of corporal punishment was also associated with a larger ERN and blunted RewP. Importantly, corporal punishment was independently associated with a larger ERN and a more muted RewP independent of the effects of harsh parenting and life stressors.
Corporal punishment appears to potentiate the neural response to errors and decrease the neural response to rewards, which may increase the risk of anxiety and depression symptoms.