A joint U.S-Colombian study looks at how the paramilitary and drug-related violence in Medellín has affected the brain function and development of Colombian children.

Two Texas Tech University professors are joining professors from two Colombian universities to study the effect of violence on children’s brain activity.

“Neurobiological Changes in Children and Youth with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Neuropsychological and Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) Evidence” will be funded by a grant from the Administrative Department for Science, Technology and Innovation of Colombia, also known as COLCENCIAS.

The grant is valued at about $100,000 USD over two years.

The research is led by the Department of Human Development and Family Studies professors Elizabeth Trejos-Castillo and Michael O’Boyle, and it aims to explore the effects of violence in youth exposed to it regularly.

They will use fMRI technology to examine brain function and cognitive performance in memory, attention and executive functions as they relate to PTSD.

It is the first study of its kind in Colombia.

“Youth exposed to violence experience not only deep emotional scars, but also report high rates of school dropout, low academic achievement and numerous challenges functioning in social contexts, in part related to impaired cognitive performance due to trauma,” Trejos-Castillo said.

“The results from this study will advance the understanding of the neurocognitive effects of violence exposure in youth, which is a big gap in existing literature, and will inform current intervention programs aiming to support youth’s normal cognitive-emotional functioning.”

The project came about when Trejos-Castillo was the keynote speaker at an event at Universidad CES Medellín in 2011. While there, she met Mauricio Barrera, a professor at the Universidad de Antioquia, now a visiting professor in the College of Human Sciences, and Lilliana Calderon, a professor at Universidad CES.

They discussed their interest in a joint research project looking at behavioural, emotional and cognitive effects of recurrent exposure to violence from the paramilitary groups and drug cartels in Colombia’s second-largest city, Medellín.

In 2013, Trejos-Castillo and O’Boyle traveled to Colombia to further discuss their research, and in 2014 Calderon and Barrera visited Texas Tech in Lubbock. The group built this project on pilot data previously collected in Colombia that looked at neuropsychological testing and clinical interventions with children who have been exposed to such violence and diagnosed with PTSD and depression.

The results showed evidence of effects of exposure to trauma on reasoning abilities, cognitive flexibility and memory and attention skills.

The fMRI data will provide an in-depth view of the neuropsychological effects of violence on children and will include a therapeutic application to be developed. The application will support the recovery process of affected youth.

“We hope the results will also inform the development and improvement of existing therapeutic and intervention efforts and help professionals working with youth exposed to violence,” Trejos-Castillo said.