Tag Archives: Epigenetics

Childhood Trauma Can Damage Genes Leading To Inability To Manage Stress

Childhood Trauma Can Damage Genes Leading To Inability To Manage Stress

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 :

stressed rat experiment

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.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

The Effect of Childhood Trauma on Genes and Susceptibility to Depression.

genes and depressin

ENVIRONMENTAL EFFECTS ON DNA :

Recent studies have shown that childhood trauma can actually change the structure of DNA in the person who has suffered it and consequently alter how these genes work (it has been known for some time that how genes express themselves is influenced by their interaction with the environment).

Animal studies support this finding: in rats it has been shown that QUALITY OF MATERNAL CARE HAS A LARGE EFFECT ON GENES RESPONSIBLE FOR THE STRESS RESPONSE IN OFFSPRING:

POOR MATERNAL CARE = ADVERSE EFFECT ON GENES OF OFFSPRING = HIGH SUSCEPTIBILITY TO STRESS IN OFFSPRING.

Indeed, there is a growing body of evidence that psychological abuse of children has BIOLOGICAL effects. Research suggests that the effects of abuse on the child’s DNA lowers their resistance to stress. This effect can persist throughout life and increases the suicide risk of the individual.

It is thought that trauma/abuse in early childhood (before the age of six) can have a particularly damaging effect on the DNA which controls the individual’s stress response.

(For those that are interested, environment affects DNA (and thus how it expresses itself) by punctuating it with what are technically known as EPIGENETIC MARKERS. It follows from this that the function of DNA is not permanently fixed from birth, but can be altered by its interaction with the environment).

childhood trauma and depression

The good news is, however, that the adverse effects on DNA caused by childhood trauma can be reversed in adult life by appropriate interventions. Key to these are the replacement of the traumatic environment with one which is supportive, loving, stable, safe and relatively stress-free. This is because just as traumatic environments can leave harmful epigenetic marks, good environments, over time, can reverse this effect.

CHILDHOOD TRAUMA, GENES AND DEPRESSION :

Just as trauma can affect genes, pre-existing genes can affect the impact trauma is likely to have on us; it is, to this extent, a two-way street then. It has already been stated in previous posts how exposure to trauma in childhood can lead to psychological problems such as clinical depression; studies now show that the risk becomes even greater if the sufferer of childhood trauma has a particular genetic make-up making him or her more vulnerable to the effects of stress:

So: children who are genetically predisposed to being particularly vulnerable to stress will typically be more adversely affected by the childhood trauma than those children who do not have the genetic vulnerability. THIS HELPS TO EXPLAIN WHY TWO CHILDREN WHO SUFFER SIMILAR TRAUMA MAY BE AFFECTED QUITE DIFFERENTLY FROM ONE ANOTHER.

Further study has shown that the children with the particular genetic variation are MORE SENSITIVE TO THE ENVIRONMENT AROUND THEM (they process emotional information differently) than children without the variation. The genes involved are responsible for the production of SEROTONIN (a chemical affecting mood, also known as a neurotransmitter) in the brain.

DISCORD BETWEEN PARENTS and NEGLECT (again, especially if the child is under six) have specifically been linked to the child developing HIGH EMOTIONAL SENSITIVITY and a greater susceptibility to stress. Again, if the child has the genetic variation making him or her particularly vulnerable, the adverse effects of the discord or neglect will be increase such vulnerability.

The research producing such findings as illustrated above is still in a relatively early stage and future research is likely to help clarify the complex interactions between our genes and how childhood trauma affects us.

genes and depression

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Other Resources :

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).