Child Abuse May Leave a Lasting Mark on Victims' DNA

By Eliza Strickland | February 23, 2009 6:33 pm

sad kidVictims of child abuse may bear chemical marks on their genomes that alter the way they respond to stress as adults, according to a small study. Researchers say they detected changes, almost like genetic scars, to a region of the genome that either promotes or tamps down the expression of a certain gene involved in stress responses. This could help explain why childhood abuse, such as sexual abuse or neglect, can cause depression, other mental health effects and suicide, and could some day lead to treatments to help victims overcome their abusive childhoods [Reuters].

Researchers studied 36 brain samples from the Quebec Suicide Brain Bank: 12 from suicide victims who had been abused as children, 12 from suicide victims that suffered no known abuse, and a final 12 who died suddenly in accidents. They found that only the brains of abuse victims showed the changes.

The results are the latest exciting findings in the young field of epigenetics, the process by which environmental factors can alter the expression of genes. In epigenetic changes, the DNA sequence itself isn’t altered, but other mechanisms change certain genes’ activities. Psychiatrist Jonathan Mill says of the new study: “Whilst these results obviously need to be replicated, they provide a mechanism by which experiences early in life can have an effect on behaviour later in adulthood. The exciting thing about epigenetic alterations is that they are potentially reversible, and thus perhaps a future target for therapeutic intervention” [BBC News].

The study, reported in Nature Neuroscience, was the next step from an animal study that showed similar alterations in rats raised by neglectful mothers. Baby rats that were licked more – the rodent equivalent of hugs and good care – grew up to be more assertive and confident than unlicked pups. The researchers showed that neglect altered an important stress regulation gene in the rat brain, a change that lasted into adulthood [Canwest News Service].

Researchers say they hope these findings will point the way towards medical treatments that could repair damage done to the victims of abuse, but note that medication is not the only answer. In the neglected rat pups, the stress-related genes returned to their normal state of activation if those pups were transferred to more attentive mothers. “Just because there’s a biological effect doesn’t mean the only way you can intervene with drugs,” [comments psychologist Joan] Kaufman. Psychotherapy, for instance, has been shown to produce chemical changes in the brain [Nature News], and might have the same effect as medication.

Related Content:
80beats: Familial Rejection of Gay Teens Can Lead to Mental Health Problems Later
DISCOVER: DNA Is Not Destiny explains how epigenetics is rewriting the rules of heritability
DISCOVER: How Good Genes Go Bad explores the role environmental toxins play in epigenetics

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
  • Todd Seyler

    As a victim of child abuse who still carries the eternal scars, this study is extremely eye opening and enlightening. As a victim, the physical damage ends, but the physiological, psychological and cognitive residual effects remain. At least now I know that there is science to support the way I struggle inside after all these years.

    I can’t thank you enough for performing the study. Please continue to do your research. Millions of people, like me, now have hope that if there is a genetic alteration caused by abuse, there also may be a genetic alteration for the cure of the effects.

    Todd Seyler

  • Lisa Wood

    I am also a survivor of childhood abuse and have suffered severe clinical depression my entire adult life. I can’t help but wonder how different my adult life would have been had my genome not been altered by these earlier experiences.

  • Bonita Kline

    I also want to thank you for writing this. And I TOTALLY agree with Joan Kaufman, there are ways to alter the cells without drugs and to find healing. If you are a victim looking for healing, I’d suggest looking into Journey work. I am a practitioner and have worked with people in this area. The results are amazing and I always see a shift in the person I am working with. You can look for a practitioner in your area by going to

  • Karen Gardner

    Also a survivor of childhood abuse, I tried for 40 years to find a way to heal the psychological, cognitive and spiritual effects (whatever you want to call them)….without real success. Some years ago I stumbled upon a modality which really addresses and deals with the abuse. This modality is called The Journey (developed by Brandon Bays). It uses guided introspection to allow the body’s own wisdom to address what needs to be addressed and the practitioner guides the process. It works!!! Gone are the symptoms I have carried my whole life (in spite of years of conventional therapy and years of study). When horrible things happen – the horror, the emotions stick in that cellular memory and we function through the filters of the abuse. The Journey techniques allow those stuck emotions to release so that one no longer has to function though all that old dis-ease. This technique seems to be well known in Europe, UK, Australia, NZ and is even being used in some schools in S Africa. If genes are the blueprint, this technique certainly seems to clean and clear the blueprint so that there can be cellular reproduction without the dis-ease. which has always before been so permanently crippling.

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