A study led by Seth Pollak (University of Wisconsin) suggests that abuse can adversely affect children at a cellular level, including the turning off or on of particular genes (this phenomenon is called EPIGENETICS – the modification of genes by the environment).
The study involved examining the DNA of children who had been identified (by Child Protection Services) as having been abused. Blood samples were taken from each of the children in order to enable this analysis.
It was found that, in each of the children, the same, specific gene (NR3C1) had been damaged. When this gene is working properly, it helps the child to manage stress (i.e. to calm down in a timely fashion after having been upset). It does this, when healthy, by preventing too much cortisol (a major stress hormone) from building up in the body.
However, in the abused children, the damage to this gene means that, under stress, too much cortisol DOES build up in their body. The effect is that the children are unable to calm themselves in the way non-abused children are able to.
This damage to the gene can result, therefore, in the child being in a constant state of hypervigilance (i.e. perpetually tense and in a state of ‘red-alert’). As a result, the child is likely to perceive threats where, objectively speaking, they do not exist, and frequently become preemptively aggressive and very easily enraged.
Additionally, such children are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, to find any kind of significant change difficult to cope with, and, later in life, to develop physical problems such as diabetes 2 and heart disease.
THE GOOD NEWS :
Studies of rodents have found that rat pups that are abused in early life also incur damage to the same (NR3C1) gene that, when operating correctly, helps them regulate stress (the same as it does in humans, as described above).
The good news, though, is that it has been found that when these rats are removed from their abusive environments and returned to nurturing mothers, the damage to the NR3C1 gene is reversed.
By extrapolation, this suggests the same reversal of damage may be possible in humans. Unfortunately, however, the necessary research to establish whether or not this is the case has not yet (at the time of writing) been carried out.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).