The impact of Sexual Trauma on the brain and false reporting

Author :- Graham Holloway June 10, 2020, 9:56 a.m.
The impact of Sexual Trauma on the brain and false reporting


Sexual trauma can have a profound impact on the psychological, emotional, and physical wellbeing of any survivor. Currently, every 73 seconds, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted [1]. More than 1 in 3 women and nearly 1 in 4 men have experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives [2]. Two of the most common experiences that survivors of sexual assault may experience are symptoms of depression and symptoms of PTSD [3]. When a survivor comes forward, they may experience condescending remarks. One of the most common remarks is that, since the individual can not remember every detail of the incident, they are making everything up. However, research shows that sexual trauma can have a profound impact on the brain, and that false reporting is a rather rare occurrence.

The HPA Axis

The HPA Axis is the body's stress-response cycle. To initiate this response, the Amygdala (a part of the brain responsible for processing emotions such as anger and fear) must interpret a stimulus as threatening. After this occurs, the Hypothalamus (a part of the brain that controls baser instincts) secretes the hormone Corticotropin, which then gets sent to the Pituitary gland (a gland located inferiorly to the Hypothalamus; often called the master gland because it regulates the activity of many other glands throughout the body). The Pituitary gland then secretes the hormone Adrenocorticotropic to the Adrenal glands (two glands located above the kidneys) to release the stress hormones Cortisol, Epinephrine, and Norepinephrine to engage the body's Sympathetic Nervous System for the fight, flight, or freeze response [4].

Hyperactivity of the HPA Axis, Depression, and PTSD

Constant engagement of the HPA axis can decrease the immune system, in turn leading to various health problems [5]. One such health problem is acute and chronic memory loss [6]. Long term activation of Corticotropin can have a neurotoxic effect on the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for memory formation), which can lead to neuron loss within the hippocampus [7], and atrophy of the hippocampus [8-11].

Research also suggests that individuals with depression have less hippocampal neurogenesis [12] and suffer from hippocampal atrophy [13-15]. In other words, the research suggests that people with depression have fewer neurons forming in their hippocampus and they have smaller hippocampi, which could explain why individuals with depression have difficulty with memory. Less hippocampal neurogenesis and hippocampal atrophy have also been found in people diagnosed with PTSD [16], which could also explain why individuals with PTSD have difficulty with memory.

False reporting

How often do false accusations occur? Research suggests that false accusations are a rare occurrence with the prevalence of false reporting being around two and ten percent [17-21], meaning that when a woman comes forward with allegations of sexual assault, there is a ninety to ninety-eight percent chance they are telling the truth. 


Research shows us that trauma, as well as the difficulties that come with it, such as PTSD and depression, can have a profound impact on an individual's hippocampus, affecting their memory. Research also suggests that the prevalence of false reporting is minuscule and that when a woman comes forward with an accusation, there is a substantial possibility they are telling the truth, and they should be believed.


[1] Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, 2018 (2019). Note: RAINN applies a 5-year rolling average to adjust for changes in the year-to-year NCVS survey data.

[2] Center For Disease Control & Prevention. (2020) Sexual Violence is Preventable. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/injury/features/sexual-violence/index.html

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