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Does Mental Stress or Abuse Cause Changes to DNA?

By: Ian Murnaghan BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 20 Feb 2013 | comments*Discuss
 
Dna Childhood Abuse Changes Adult

Mental stress and abuse are horrific to anyone who experiences them, but new research suggests that they can even cause changes to DNA.

A study in Canada looked at the brains of suicide victims who had histories of abuse. They found that the DNA in these individuals showed changes that we would not normally see in suicide victims who had not been abused.

Looking at Older Research

In older studies in this field, we had already discovered that child abuse and neglect can change a person's hormonal stress response. We also know that it can raise the chance of the victim committing suicide.

Bringing Research Forward

The new research involved researchers looking at samples of the brains of people who had died by suicide. These people all had histories of abuse. Researchers focused in on the area of the brain known as the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a part of the brain that's very important in controlling our response to stressful situations.

During the study, the researchers found that there were some marked changes in gene expression. There was one gene in particular that showed changes in those who had been abused versus suicide victims who never experienced abuse during childhood. In fact, the changes weren't even seen in people who had died from non-suicide causes.

Different Brain Markers

Specifically, the researchers found that those who had been victims of childhood abuse had different markers in the area of the brain that involves a stress response known to increase the risk of suicide. These 'epigenetic' markers on DNA also correlate to earlier studies from last year on childhood abuse.

It is the combination of the environment and DNA that ultimately affects our ability to handle and repel against stress and suicide. The epigenetic markers are a result of our DNA and environment. Interestingly enough though, epigenetic marks can also be treated in an adult through manipulation of the DNA coating, which essentially causes a reversal of the stress response.

Understanding the Study

If you think about your DNA, it's a vital code that is inherited from your parents and it is essentially static throughout your life. However, the genes in your DNA have somewhat of a coating on them, which involves chemicals known as DNA methylation. It is these chemicals that impact how DNA is expressed and these chemicals can also be impacted by environmental changes.

Preventing Childhood Abuse

In particular, changes can occur during a person's earlier years, from the embryonic state and also in the childhood years. The findings of the study show that a troubling childhood can end up resulting in changes to a person's DNA. It's a frightening effect because it shows that childhood abuse doesn't only trigger psychological damage but it can also result in biological damage as well.

We already have more than enough reasons to prevent childhood abuse but this new study still adds another one into the mix. It shows the extent of the impact from childhood abuse, such that DNA experiences changes. Hopefully, we can continue to learn more about the interaction between DNA, the environment and stressful experiences.

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