Abused children carry lifelong "scars" of trauma in DNA: study
Abuse can have effects that go on not only into adulthood, but into your child's cells, too.
The consequences of abusing a child can taper off well into adulthood. But apparently, it can go beyond that, too – perhaps until the next generation. On Tuesday, researchers discovered an astonishing fact. Kids who were abused while young had physical signs of their suffering encoded within their cells.
Consequences of abusing a child: DNA methylation
Scientists from the University of British Columbia analysed sperm cells from 34 adult men. A part of these adults were abused when they were still young.
Researchers discovered that one of the consequences of abusing a child was that the traumatic experience had a lasting effect on DNA. Specifically, the trauma left permanent marks in 12 areas of DNA. These marks were only found in men who went through some form of emotional, physical or sexual abuse while they were young.
You may recall or think that genes come with a packaged set of instructions during birth. However, this isn’t true. Scientists have found out that genes can be “dimmed” or “turned on” through certain things in the environment or from the experiences someone has.
The field that studies these factors that “dims” or “turns on” genes during the different phases of human growth is called epigenetics. The study mentioned here, published in the Journal Translational Psychiatry, is just one of several experiments in epigenetics.
Applications of DNA methylation
Why is knowing DNA methylation so important? Well, according to Gladys, this knowledge can help researchers to get extra details about “how childhood abuse affects long-term physical and mental health.”
In fact, scientists are confident that being able to track methylation will lead other applications in the future. For instance tracking DNA methylation can help:
- investigators or courts can gauge how severely a child has been abused by looking at their methylation levels.
- add data to investigating crimes that are linked to child abuse in the past.
- give clues in understanding if trauma may be inherited from one generation to the next.
Barely the tip of the iceberg
However’s, there’s still a lot more about consequences of abusing a child that scientists don’t know.
Researchers from the study are still uncertain how methylation influences an individal’s health in the long run.
Furthermore, unlike sperm, egg cells are much harder to remove. Thus, researchers aren’t planning to repeat the study with women, even though women have a higher chance of been abused as kids compared to men.
Researchers were surprised to see the extent of “dimming” within the DNA, though. One section of the genome from men who were previously abused had differences of up to 29% compared to their non-abused counterparts.
In addition, the “dimming” intensity differs as you age. With this information handy, scientists could estimate when these men were abused – just by seeing their cells.
“This might help the development of tests that could be used by healthcare workers or potentially even as forensic evidence,” says Gladish.
Scientists aren’t sure if these marks from abuse etched into sperm cells can remain after fertilisation. Still, Andrea Roberts, the lead author of the study, commented that the trial “brings us at least one step closer” to confirming whether or not trauma can be inherited.
Their study, according to Gladish, is only “one small piece in the huge overall puzzle of how intergenerational trauma works.”
Gladish’s team isn’t the only one working on intergenerational trauma. Other scientists are also conducting experiments on animals, like mice.
“It is certainly possible that epigenetic changes in sperm cells play a role in the physical and mental health of the next generation, but we don’t know for sure,” says Gladish.
Other consequences of abusing a child
In our previous article, we also outlined that one of the consequences of abusing a child is that their brains develop differently. The brain of an abused child lacks some of the most fundamental areas present in compared to his non-abused peers.
According to an expert, the abused child’s brain is “significantly smaller than average” and has abnormal areas. These differences in brain structure means a lot. Children who experience abuse, compared to their normal peers, might enter adolescence being:
- less intelligent
- less empathetic
- attracted to crime and drugs
- likelier to develop mental and other serious health problems as an adult.
Most of us know that the early childhood years are critical periods: they can profoundly impact the rest of a person’s life. But we had no idea that consequences of abusing a child would have such far-reaching effects like brain size and DNA!
80 % of brain cells that a person will ever have, are manufactured during the first 2 years after birth. Which means that if a baby is not treated properly in the first two years of life, the genes for various aspects of brain function, including intelligence, cannot function properly and may not even be formed.