Researchers Link Child Abuse to Higher Risk of Relapse

By John Lavitt 10/27/14

Addicts with a history of abuse as children could have a greater chance of relapsing while in early recovery.

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According to a new study by researchers at the NYU School of Medicine and Yale University School of Medicine, a history of child abuse significantly raises the risk of relapse for adult addicts in early recovery. While previous studies have shown that a history of child abuse or neglect increases the risk for substance abuse disorders in adulthood, such studies were focused on the risk of developing such disorders as opposed to the risk of relapse once treatment for a substance abuse disorder is begun.

Published in the American Medical Association journal JAMA Psychiatry, the study highlighted the difficulty of treating adult addicts with a history of child abuse. After entering treatment, a significant number of addicts relapse back into substance use. Given this new connection between such relapses and a history of child abuse has now been firmly established, it raises the difficulty factor for treatment centers trying to achieve successful outcomes.

The researchers from the two schools used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to examine the brains of 79 people in treatment for substance use disorder. They examined the changes in brain function that heighten the risks for relapse. They specifically assessed whether individuals with a history of child abuse have increased chances of relapsing during treatment.

In the study, some of the addicted subjects had a history of childhood abuse while others did not. The study also included an additional 98 people unaffected by substance use disorder. Just like in the addict population, some had histories of childhood abuse while others did not. In each group, the researchers looked for certain changes in the brain previously linked to an increased risk for relapsing.

After analyzing the results of MRI exams, the study revealed clear indications of relapse-related changes in the normal brain function of participants with a history of childhood abuse. The researchers concluded that the increased relapse risk is roughly the same for all addictive substances under consideration. In addition, it also was shown that subjects with a history of childhood abuse had particularly severe relapse episodes when compared to their counterparts.

The authors of the study note that almost five out of every 10 people who experience neglect or abuse during childhood will eventually develop substance problems. The findings clearly indicated that such a history has the potential to lower effective treatment rates for substance use disorders. As a result, treatment centers could adjust and even improve their outcomes considerably by taking abuse history into account when working with clients.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.