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Published: June 26, 2024

How Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Affect Brain Development

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) refer to stressful or traumatic events experienced by individuals before the age of 18. These experiences can vary widely and may include abuse (physical, emotional, or sexual), neglect, household dysfunction (such as witnessing domestic violence or growing up with substance abuse, mental illness, or incarceration in the household), or other traumatic experiences.

The impact of ACEs on brain development is profound and can have long-lasting effects on an individual's physical health, mental health, and overall well-being. Understanding how ACEs affect brain development is crucial for developing effective interventions and support systems for those who have experienced trauma during childhood.

Read more: What are the 7 stages of brain development

What are ACEs?

ACEs, or Adverse Childhood Experiences, are bad things that can happen to kids before they turn 18. These things can include abuse, neglect, or living in a household where there are problems like domestic violence, substance abuse, or mental illness. ACEs can affect how kids grow up and can cause health problems later in life.

How ACEs Affect Brain Development

  1. Stress Response Changes: ACEs can make the brain more sensitive to stress, leading to strong reactions even in normal situations.
  2. Emotion Regulation Challenges: ACEs can make it harder to manage emotions, causing mood swings or difficulty controlling feelings.
  3. Learning and Memory Impact: ACEs can affect how well the brain learns and remembers things, making it harder to focus or remember information.
  4. Brain Structure Changes: ACEs can alter the structure of the brain, especially areas related to stress and emotions, potentially affecting behavior and mental health.

Impact of ACEs on Child Brain Development

  1. Altered Brain Structure: ACEs can lead to changes in brain structure, particularly in areas related to stress response and emotion regulation.
  2. Impaired Neural Development: ACEs can hinder the development of neural connections, affecting cognitive abilities and emotional regulation.
  3. Increased Risk of Mental Health Disorders: Children exposed to ACEs are at higher risk of developing mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
  • Psychological and Behavioral Consequences of ACEs

  1. Emotional Dysregulation: ACEs can lead to difficulties in regulating emotions, resulting in mood swings and impulsivity.
  2. Behavioral Problems: Children exposed to ACEs may exhibit behavioral problems such as aggression, defiance, and hyperactivity.
  3. Cognitive Impairments: ACEs can impact cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and executive function.
  • Long-Term Effects of ACEs on Brain Development

  1. Risk of Chronic Stress: ACEs can predispose individuals to chronic stress, which can have lasting effects on brain health.
  2. Increased Vulnerability to Mental Illness: Adults who experienced ACEs as children are at higher risk of developing mental illnesses later in life.
  3. Impact on Overall Well-Being: ACEs can have long-term consequences on overall well-being, affecting relationships, work, and physical health.

Disease, Disability, and Social Outcomes


  • Increased Risk of Chronic Diseases: ACEs make it more likely to develop chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
  • Stress Response: ACEs can lead to a heightened stress response in the body, which can contribute to inflammation and hormonal imbalances.
  • Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms: Individuals who experience ACEs may develop unhealthy coping mechanisms such as smoking, overeating, or substance abuse, which further increase the risk of chronic diseases.
  • Cycle of Poor Health: The toll of chronic diseases can exacerbate mental health issues stemming from ACEs, creating a cycle of poor health outcomes. Early intervention and support are crucial to breaking this cycle.


  • Physical Disabilities: ACEs can lead to physical injuries or neglect that result in long-term disabilities.
  • Mental Health Disabilities: ACEs increase the risk of developing mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, and PTSD, which can be disabling.
  • Impact on Development: ACEs can hinder normal development, leading to cognitive or behavioral disabilities.
  • Social Implications: Disabilities can affect a person's ability to interact with others or participate in activities, leading to social isolation or exclusion.
  • Need for Support: Individuals with disabilities stemming from ACEs may require additional support and resources to cope with daily challenges and improve their quality of life.

 Social Outcomes:

  • Relationship Difficulties: ACEs can make it hard to form and maintain healthy relationships with others.
  • Educational Challenges: ACEs can lead to difficulties in school, such as poor academic performance or behavior problems.
  • Employment Issues: Adults who experienced ACEs may struggle to find or keep a job due to the impact of trauma on their ability to function in a work environment.
  • Isolation: ACEs can lead to feelings of isolation or loneliness, as individuals may have trouble connecting with others.
  • Support Networks: Building strong support networks can help individuals affected by ACEs overcome these challenges and lead fulfilling lives.

How We Can Help

At the New Jersey Pediatric Neuroscience Institute (NJPNI), our Pediatric Neurosurgeon experts recognize the impact of ACEs on brain development and overall health. We are committed to providing comprehensive care for children and adolescents affected by trauma. Our services include counseling, therapy, and support groups, aimed at helping children and families cope with ACE-related effects.


handout ACES Stress and Early Brain Growth images 0 | New Jersey Pediatric Neuroscience Institute   handout ACES Stress and Early Brain Growth images 1 | New Jersey Pediatric Neuroscience Institute


In conclusion, ACEs can have a profound impact on brain development, leading to a range of physical, mental, and social consequences. Understanding how ACEs affect the brain is crucial for developing effective interventions and support systems for those who have experienced trauma during childhood. At NJPNI, we are committed to helping children and families heal from the effects of ACEs and lead healthy, fulfilling lives.

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NOTICE: This website is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice or as a substitute for a patient/physician relationship.

NJPNI is committed to creating a culturally diverse, inclusive and collaborative community for patients and their families, employees and associates where each person is celebrated and has a sense of equal belonging. See our DEI Statement Page for more information.

NJPNI does not exclude, deny benefits to, or otherwise discriminate against any person on the grounds of race, color, or national origin, or on the basis of disability or age in admission to, participation in, or receipt of the services and benefits of any of its programs and activities or in employment therein. This statement is in accordance with the provisions of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, and Regulations of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued pursuant to the Acts, Title 45 Code of Federal Regulations part 80, 84, and 91.

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