Study looks at impact of violence on life of Latin American teenagers

Research was published in international journal Developmental Science and is part of larger project

08/02/2019 - 09h05

2019_02_01-pesquisa_violencia_adolescentespiaxabay_sasintFor the first time, a neuroimaging study looks at how violence affects the brain of Latin American teenagers. The investigation, headed by Dr Augusto Buchweitz, professor da School of Health Sciences of PUCRS and Brain Institute of RS (BraIns) researcher, has been published in the international journal Developmental Science. Buchweitz relied on the support of his team to work on this investigation.

Adolescence is a period of life in which people are extremely susceptible to the environment they are surrounded by. The study suggests that violence can affect adolescents’ social cognition, and this involves several important sub-skills for social life, such as empathy. “The neural networks that are accountable for this kind of social perception are less active in adolescents who have been more exposed to violence”, says Buchweitz. In his view, we cannot guarantee that this will have consequences in the future, but the atypical operation of these networks might increase the risk for humor disorders, for instance.

Juvenile Victimization Questionnaire

Students from schools in Porto Alegre, the southernmost capital in the south of Brazil, have been invited and screened. Some of these schools are located in areas where the violence is rife and students become highly vulnerable. The Juvenile Victimization Questionnaire (JVQ) was applied and some students have been selected for the following stages of the project at BraIns.

Samples of their hair have been collected in order to assess the level of cortisol (stress hormone). They were also subject to functional magnetic resonance exams as they had to complete a task that looks at social perception: by looking at the pairs of eyes they were shown, they had to evaluate their mental state in the photo (happy, sad or tired).

Results have shown that the areas that are related to social perception and cognition are less activated when people are more exposed to violence. These regions include the fusiform gyrus and the superior temporal sulcus, both of which are located in the brain’s right hemisphere. At the same time, the connectivity in the amygdala (also known as the “fear’s center” in the brain) was higher when individuals were exposed to violence. That means that the same region that was less activated in adolescents that were more exposed to violence was communicating more with the amygdala in these individuals. Results have also shown that the correlation between exposure to violence and higher levels of cortisol suggest a higher level of stress.

Projeto VIVA

The study has been carried out in support of the project VIVA – Vida e Violência na Adolescência (Life and Violence in Adolescence) , which was financially supported by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and looks at the effects of violence and stress on adolescent learning and brain. As it is expected to come to an end in 2019, the research has also been developed in the city of Tegucigalpa with the collaboration of the Universidad Naciónal de Honduras, since 2017.

In September 2018, Buchweitz went to Washington (USA) to present a report of VIVA to IDB’s Department of Education and Infrastructure. The meeting included representatives of IDB, of the International Development Agency USAID and the third sector as well.


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