UW professor, how adolescent trauma impacts the adult brain

The keynote address for Ryther, a behavioral health services provider for children, began with a joke:

“I’m really interested in why some teenagers are good at controlling their impulses and why I am not,” said Dr. Kevin King, Associate Professor of Child Clinical Psychology at the University of Washington.

Those in the audience with teenage children laughed appreciatively.

King has devoted his clinical research to children in their early and late adolescence, trying to determine the impact that adverse events in adolescence have on their brain development.

“So much of public policy focus is on the importance of [early childhood] marked by brain plasticity, but research is increasingly showing that adolescence is a second sensitive developmental period for the brain,” said King.

In what he calls the ‘second decade,’ 50 percent of lifetime onset will have occurred. That means by certain landmark ages, most individuals that have certain disorders will have experienced them. For example, by the age of 10, most children will experience specific phobias; those with ADHD will experience certain challenges by this age. By the age of 13 the majority of social phobias manifest; by the age of 14, alcohol use or abuse. King also reveals that peak alcohol or drug dependency disorders will be experienced before the age of 21.

“We also see risk disorders peaking late in the second and early in the third decade,” said King.

Adverse childhood experiences may disrupt brain development and have long-term effects on adult impulse control.

King’s research partner, Kate McLaughlin, charts adolescent adversity experiences by event. Those with more adversity in their youth show increased odds of exhibiting behavior disorders and reduced ability of the brain towards impulse control.

In Washington State, King estimates that fewer than 20 percent of adolescents who have had adverse events are getting the mental health services they need. Of those that do receive treatment, less than 10 percent get it for more than three months.

“Treatment produces lasting changes in the brain that set them on a better trajectory in their lives. Places like Ryther are critically important not just because it serves most at-risk youth but because it uses evidence-based practices that tracks their outcomes,” said King.