ACEs and Brain Architecture

Illustration of baby girl smilingA healthy newborn brain is about one-quarter the size of an adult brain, but it comes packed with the pieces and parts required for phenomenal development, especially from birth to age 3. An average baby’s brain triples in size during the first year of life and outside input – relationships, environment, and experiences, play a powerful role in what’s happening on the inside. Experiences stimulate up to 1 million neural connections per second and help build a brain architecture that is the foundation for future learning, behavior, and health. The experiences that prompt neural connections can be positive and nurturing as well as negative and adverse. When babies and young children have adverse experiences related to stress, neglect, or abuse, their brain architecture can be impaired.
Illustration of baby boy crying
New Scientist offers a microscopic view of the fascinating process of neurons migrating to different areas of the brain for months after birth. These migrating cells have been identified as “inhibitory neurons” that serve to balance out “excitory neurons.” Outside input stimulates the movement of inhibitory neurons.

Consider what is happening around a vulnerable, dependent newborn – the sounds, the responsiveness of caregivers, physical comfort, and how those experiences may impact the balance of excitation being established in his/her brain. Consider the infant growing into a young child exposed to stress, neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or functioning in extreme poverty. These adverse experiences have a biological impact on brain development, weakening the architecture and setting the body’s stress response on high alert.

In “Nature’s Neurons” (, July 26, 2012), Richard Louv identifies a firm relationship between the serious health, mental health, and behavior issues of adults and toxic stress in early childhood. Louv says, “From conception through early childhood, brain architecture is particularly malleable and influenced by environment and relationships with primary caregivers, including toxic stress caused by abuse or chronic neglect. By interfering with healthy brain development, such stress can undermine the cognitive skills and health of a child, leading to learning difficulty and behavior problems, as well as psychological and behavior problems, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other physical ailments later in life.”

ACEs pyramid
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are defined as stressful or potentially traumatic events that can have lasting effects over an individual’s lifespan. ACEs acquired in childhood, as described by Louv, may manifest decades later as risky health behaviors (think smoking, drug use, alcohol abuse, unprotected sex, poor diet/obesity) and chronic illness (heart disease, diabetes, hypertension), and low life potential (graduation rates, lost time from work). The chances of an early death increase significantly the more ACEs an individual has accumulated.

10 ACEs
Ten ACEs have been identified based on research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente in San Diego. The original ACE Study, conducted by Drs. Anda and Felitti, involved 17,000 participants who received physical exams and responded to questionnaires about their childhood experiences and their health status and behaviors as adults. At least two-thirds of the ACE Study participants had at least one ACE. One in five had three or more ACEs.

10 ACEs divided into 3 categoriesThe 10 ACEs are:
Physical abuse
Sexual abuse
Emotional abuse
Physical neglect
Emotional neglect
Mother treated violently
Substance misuse within household
Household mental illness
Parental separation or divorce
Incarcerated household member

For some people, some of the ACEs may illicit a sharp reaction and seem very familiar. For others, some of the ACEs may seem like somewhat common life experiences and still others may seem more profoundly traumatic. Yet, each of them may leave a lasting impact and that impact escalates the more ACEs a person has acquired. The ACEs Quiz provided by Aces Too High will help anyone interested get their personal ACE score.

Now, consider the baby who has grown into a student affected by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and is attempting to function and learn in a classroom. Consider that student growing into an adult attempting to pursue a college degree or complete trade school and progress into a career. The adverse experiences that have affected the quality of the individual’s neurological wiring continue to have effects on physical, mental, and emotional health in adulthood. Just as the young student faced challenges in the classroom, the adult with ACEs faces challenges with relationships and succeeding on the job.

A baby’s early experiences literally shape the architecture of his brain, creating a strong or fragile foundation for learning, health, managing behavior, and achieving success in school and the workplace. Recognizing how adverse experiences may impede brain development underscores the need to build protective factors in families, supporting parents, whether or not they have acknowledged ACEs. Reducing ACEs starts with parents capable of giving their newborns a safe, nurturing start that will blow their minds, in a good way.

LEARN MORE: ACES TOWN HALL Learn more about The Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences by attending a free Town Hall Forum on April 19, 2017 at the Holiday Inn (Redding, CA). Doors open at 4:30 pm and attendees can enjoy refreshments until the panelist presentations begin at 5:00 pm. Audience members will be invited into the discussion with a question and answer session. REGISTER:

About Deborah Peel

Writer, blogger, marketer, mother, lover of big trees and isolated mountain tops. I'm passionate about the pathway to success that First 5 Shasta is building for young children. Our grantees, partners, and caring community members all contribute to this critical early childhood investment. Together, we make the pathway strong!
This entry was posted in 0-to-5 Focus and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *