Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Saturday, March 28, 2009

After, or before AND after? A cautionary tale

An article by Bendict Carey in the New York Times' "Science Times" section, Feb. 24, 2009, was entitled "After abuse, changes in the brain." What was missing from this title? Well, a question mark would have made it a much better summary of the material below it. Evidence in the article implied, but did not justify, the conclusion that brain characteristics existed after abusive treatment, but had not existed before.

Carey described research by Patrick McGowan et al., published in Nature Neuroscience, which compared the brains of 12 suicides who had suffered abuse in childhood with those of 12 other suicides who had not been abused. Genetic analysis showed that the first group had a good deal less genetic activity in genes that govern certain receptors on neurons than did the second group. The receptors in question function to help clear stress hormones that affect neurons.

It is plausible that experience of abuse could change the relevant genetic functions. But are there other equally plausible explanations? For example, what if children whose brains cleared stress hormones poorly behaved in ways that made adults more likely to abuse them? Children who do not calm down after being scolded or punished may trigger escalation of adult hostility, even to the point where punishment becomes abuse. Thus, genetic characteristics could determine the experience of abuse rather than the other way around.

If there is only one plausible explanation for an event, we often accept it (rightly or wrongly) even without any empirical support for the idea. But if there is more than one plausible explanation, we should certainly accept neither on the basis of plausibility alone. In this case, a good deal more evidence will be needed before we can accept the article headline with its present punctuation.


  1. Poor behaviour of children causing abuse? Like short skirts cause rapes?

    If you said the children who show that poor behaviour have parents who also are prone to poor behaviour ( a genetic link ) thats more palatable

  2. Aren't you aware that children with some characteristics are more likely to be abused than others, even within the same family?

  3. What you refer to is a tendancy noted through a statistical analysis. On a sample of families where abuse has already occured? Does the trend hold in a random sample? Meaning, do such children face increased likelyhood of abuse regardless of parent characteristcs? You are using statistical findings to construct a critisicm of another statistical finding. Let it be so. But this will lead to people putting the blame on children and 'if only he were a better child, I would be a better parent'...

  4. I'm talking about understanding cause and effect, not "putting the blame". Most behavior in families is transactional, with causes going in both directions and changing over time.

    I understand your concerns about abusive parents taking this idea as justification for their behavior, but surely that's not a good reason for pretending information doesn't exist.