We’ve long known that childhood trauma can be a psychological burden in later life, but now scientists have shown that early abuse can actually damage the stress regulation system of the body by altering a growing child’s DNA.
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich have demonstrated how adult anxiety and mood disorders can arise from epi-genetic damage caused by intense childhood trauma. Those afflicted will be less able to cope with stress their entire lives and more prone to anxiety and depression.
This effect arises in subjects that have a particular variant of a gene labeled FKBP5, which helps to regulate an organism’s response to stressful situations. Specifically, high levels of stress hormones in growing children break off a methyl group of the DNA in FKBP5, which alters the manner in which the gene expresses itself. As the child reaches adulthood, these alterations in behavior continue, with dire consequences.
Depending on genetic predisposition, childhood trauma can leave permanent epigenetic marks on the DNA, further de-repressing FKBP5 transcription. The consequence is a permanent dysregulation of the victim’s stress hormone system, which can ultimately lead to psychiatric illness. — Torsten Klengel
These changes weren’t seen in adults victimized by intense stress, and only in those with a particular variant of the FKBP5 gene, however the study points the way to new and exciting targets for possible therapy, and helps to further expand our knowledge of how experience in the real world can alter the expression of our genes.