Sex, Media & Culture  Mental Health 

The impact of Sexual Trauma on the brain and false reporting

Graham Holloway  |  Apr 26 2020

The impact of Sexual Trauma on the brain and false reporting

Introduction

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. 

Conclusion

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.

References

[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

[3] Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. (2020). Effects of Sexual Violence. Retrieved from https://www.rainn.org/effects-sexual-violence

[4] Kolb, B., Whishaw, I. Q., & Teskey, G. C. (2019). An introduction to Brain and Behavior (5th ed.). N.Y., NY: Macmillan International Higher Education. 

[5] Segerstrom, S. C., & Miller, G. E. (2004). Psychological stress and the human immune system: a meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychological bulletin130(4), 601–630. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.130.4.601

[6] Henckens, M. J. A. G., Hermans, E. J., Pu, Z., Joels, M., & Fernandez, G. (2009). Stressed Memories: How Acute Stress Affects Memory Formation in Humans. Journal of Neuroscience29(32), 10111–10119. doi: 10.1523/jneurosci.1184-09.2009

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[10] Magarinos, A.M., & Mcewen, B.S. (1995). Stress-induced atrophy of apical dendrites of hippocampal Ca3c neurons - involvement of glucocorticoid secretion and excitatory amino-acid receptors. Neuroscience. 69(1):89–98.

[11] Magarinos, A.M., McEwen, B.S., Flugge, G, & Fuchs, E. (1996). Chronic psychosocial stress causes apical dendritic atrophy of hippocampal CA3 pyramidal neurons in subordinate tree shrews. J Neurosci. 16(10):3534–3540.

[12] Willner, P., Scheel-Krüger, J., & Belzung, C. (2013). The neurobiology of depression and antidepressant action. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 37(10 Pt 1), 2331-71. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2012.12.007

[13] Videbech, P., Ravnkilde, B. (2004). Hippocampal volume and depression: a meta-analysis of MRI studies. Am. J. Psychiatry 161, 1957–1966. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.161.11.1957

[14] Campbell, S., Marriott, M., Nahmias, C., MacQueen, G.M. (2004). Lower hippocampal volume in patients suffering from depression: a meta-analysis. Am. J. Psychiatry 161, 598–607. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.161.4.598

[15] Davidson, R.J., Lewis, D.A., Alloy, L.B., Amaral, D.G., Bush, G., Cohen, J.D., Drevets, W.C., Farah, M.J., Kagan, J., McClelland, J.L., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Peterson, B.S. (2002). Neural and behavioral substrates of mood and mood regulation. Biol. Psychiatry 52, 478–502. doi:10.1016/S0006-3223(02)01458-0

[16] Logue, M. W., van Rooij, S., Dennis, E. L., Davis, S. L., Hayes, J. P., Stevens, J. S., Densmore, M., Haswell, C. C., Ipser, J., Koch, S., Korgaonkar, M., Lebois, L., Peverill, M., Baker, J. T., Boedhoe, P., Frijling, J. L., Gruber, S. A., Harpaz-Rotem, I., Jahanshad, N., Koopowitz, S., … Morey, R. A. (2018). Smaller Hippocampal Volume in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Multisite ENIGMA-PGC Study: Subcortical Volumetry Results From Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Consortia. Biological psychiatry, 83(3), 244–253. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2017.09.006

[17] Lonsway, K., Archambault, J., Lisak, D., (2009). False Reports:  Moving Beyond the Issue to Successfully Investigate and Prosecute Non-Stranger Sexual Assault. Retrieved from: https://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications/2018-10/Lisak-False-Reports-Moving-beyond.pdf

[18] Lisak, D., Gardinier, L., Nicksa, S. C., & Cote, A. M. (2010). False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases. Violence Against Women, 16(12), 1318–1334. doi: 10.1177/1077801210387747

[19] Heenan, M., & Murray, S. (2006). Study of reported rapes in Victoria 2000-2003: Summary research report. Retrieved from the State of Victoria (Australia), Victoria Police:  http://www.police.vic.gov.au/retrievemedia.asp?Media_ID=19462

[20] Spohn, C., White, C., & Tellis, K. (2014). Unfounding Sexual Assault: Examining the Decision to Unfound and Identifying False Reports. Law & Society Review, 48(1), 161–192. doi: 10.1111/lasr.12060

[21] Kelly, L., Lovett, J., & Regan, L. (2005). A Gap or a Chasm? Attrition in Reported Rape Cases. London: Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate.


Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash


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