child trauma
Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
January 1, 2024 ·  4 min read

Childhood trauma leaves scars that are genetic, not just emotional, study affirms

Psychologists have known for years that childhood trauma can have a lasting impact on a person’s mental health. People who live through violent or tragic life circumstances at an early age have a greater risk for developing psychiatric disorders later in life.

New research has shown, however, that this impact may be deeper than psychologists originally thought. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have demonstrated that childhood trauma can affect a person’s genetic chemistry.

Childhood Trauma Affects Your Genes

Children who experience significant stress early in life are more likely to develop mental health disorders including anxiety, depression, and mood disorders later in life. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison wanted to determine exactly why this trauma follows them into adulthood.

To do this, they compared the whole genomes of children with very high-stress early lives with children who did not. 

The study collected saliva from 22 girls between the ages of nine and twelve. They then analyzed those samples to see which genes affected biological processes. Specifically, they were looking for a molecular modification called methylation. Methylation occurs when environmental changes cause a methyl group to attach to susceptible sites on genes [1].

UW–Madison neurosurgery professor Reid Alisch says that many things can modify your methylation levels. These include what you eat, your life experiences, and how much you exercise.

“DNA methylation doesn’t change your DNA, but the presence or absence of DNA methylation can change the way your DNA is used and whether or how much genes are expressed,” he explained [2].

Gene Expression and Stress

The researchers found that more than 1400 genes showed a difference in expression connected to the amount of stress the girls had experienced. In particular, they found 122 genes where methylation of high-stress girls’ DNA was different from the girls with peaceful childhoods.

“Our analysis identified differences in genes that help regulate mood and attachment, such as those for oxytocin and serotonin receptors. Those are exciting because we may be seeing the mechanism via which childhood stress can cause social or behavioral problems,” said Leslie Seltzer, co-lead author on the study [2].

She added, however, that they also flagged a number of genes whose jobs they are still uncertain of. They know they need to study these genes further to understand their role in stress-related psychiatric disorders.

Stress-Related Changes Don’t Go Away

Before their study, the researchers weren’t sure if the methylation and gene expression that occurred as a result of childhood trauma would persist as the girls got older. According to Alisch, those changes appear to remain after even ten years after the trauma occurred. He describes them as fossils on our genome, reminding us that trauma was there.

That trauma, he says, may make the individual more susceptible to a second trauma, or even behavioral change, later in life [2].

Read: 21 Day Anti Anxiety Challenge

How will this Study Help Childhood Trauma?

Alisch says that their study may lead the way to new diagnostic tools. 

As of now, one of the main ways we determine whether someone has gone through trauma is by interviewing the child and their parents. The problem, however, is that one of the side-effects of childhood trauma is that the victim can’t always recall accurately what happened to them.

Genetic tests, on the other hand, are more objective and reliable. This can help psychologists treat the individual.

As a city, Milwaukee has been experiencing an ongoing social crisis. This has led to poverty, unemployment, incarceration, infant mortality, and broken homes. The high levels of childhood trauma that exist in the city are overwhelming individual agencies and activists. Officials know something needs to be done.

“We can no longer say we don’t know what to do,” said Susan Gadacz, chief executive of the Outreach Community Health Centers [3].

The American Heart Association has now joined the cause. Oby Nwabuzor is a health strategies official at the Milwaukee chapter of the Heart Association. She says that there is a definite connection between childhood trauma and heart health. How? Because people with mental illness are often unable to care for their physical and cardiovascular health.

The Heart Association will be able to help significantly when it comes to government policy advocacy. Government mental health reimbursements are currently twenty percent below conventional medicine payments. This makes it difficult to provide services to people who need them.

More Access to Mental Health Care

Research like this proves that there are physical consequences to mental and psychological trauma. This will this help doctors find better treatments for people who have undergone trauma. It will also further legitimize mental health disorders in the medical field.

Learning about and raising awareness of the deep-rooted causes of mental health disorders we will help improve access to care. This will, in turn, reduce the instance of depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders in our communities.

Keep Reading: How Childhood Trauma Could Be Mistaken for ADHD