Adverse Childhood Experiences | ACE Study | Effects on the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)

The ACE Study focuses on the effects of “Adverse Childhood Experiences” on adult health.  It would suffice to say that the epidemiological data they accumulated suggests an overwhelming correlation between childhood trauma and our health as adults.  My initial reaction is one of shock and awe, although I was equally surprised by the depth and breadth of research to support their findings.   (Cavalcade Productions, Inc. [CP], 2004)

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Palaszynski and colleagues concluded that adverse childhood experiences could produce long-term effects on a number of biological systems, including the endocrine, nervous, immune, and cardiovascular systems.  Generally speaking, they found that any system involved in the acute stress response system could be affected.  (Palaszynski & Nemeroff, 2009)  Since examining all of these biological systems is beyond the scope of this short article, we will focus on the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).

Chartier and associates (2009) found empirical evidence that childhood abuse exacerbated chronic health conditions through a number of mechanisms, including increased autonomic nervous system or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity.  Other research, conducted by Farrugia and Fetter (2009), implicated the brain processing centers for pain, emotion, and other autonomic physiologic behavior; suggesting that relative proximity and plasticity (less specific) functioning the sub-cortex of the brain may account for a cross-over of neurological activity.  Chapman, Dube, and Anda (2007) found that the “autonomic nervous system and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis hyper-reactivity may be a consequence of childhood abuse, heightening the subsequent risk for depression.”  Furthermore, dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis has been documented in individuals with other forms of psychological stress, including childhood abuse.  (Brotman, Golden, & Wittstein, 2007)

Although the depth of the research that has been conducted so far is impressive, additional research is needed to add clarity and depth to the current compendium of information we have at our disposal.

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Brotman, D. J., Golden, S. H., & Wittstein, I. S. (2007,  Sep 22-Sep 28). The cardiovascular toll of stress. The Lancet, 370(9592), 1089-1101. Retrieved from

Cavalcade Productions, Inc. . (Producer). (2004). The ace study: Childhood trauma and adult health [Video]. Available from

Chapman, D. P., Dube, S. R., & Anda, R. F. (2007, May). Adverse childhood events as risk factors for negative mental health outcomes.  Psychiatric Annals, 37(5), 359-364. Retrieved from

Chartier, M. J., Walker, J. R., & Naimark, B. (2009, May). Health risk behaviors and mental health problems as mediators of the relationship between childhood abuse and adult health. American Journal of Public Health, 99(5), 847-855. Retrieved from

Farrugia, D., & Fetter, H. (2009, Jul). Chronic pain: Biological understanding and treatment suggestions for mental health counselors.  Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 31(3), 189-201. Retrieved from

Palaszynski, K. M., & Nemeroff, C. B. (2009, Dec). The medical consequences of child abuse and neglect. Psychiatric Annals, 39(12), 1004-1010. Retrieved from

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