Childhood Abuse Leads to Genetic Changes, Depression and Suicide
> 5/7/2008 1:20:34 PM

Early-life experiences and environmental conditions, combined with the influence of an inherited genetic framework, guide our development as we grow into adulthood. But ongoing research illuminates the depths to which these experiences - especially those of the traumatic variety - actually change the chemical makeup of our brains. Abused children, no matter how resilient their character, often suffer from the weight of a traumatic youth for the rest of their lives. New studies of individuals who were abused as children and later committed suicide reveal the prominence of the chemical changes that these experiences bring about. The brains of those who suffered abuse extreme enough to lead to severe depression and suicide bear very similar abnormalities, implying that this trauma affects the brain in near-universal ways.

This concept is not entirely new. A history of childhood abuse is significantly more common among suicide victims than an average healthy person. Neurological abnormalities have long been observed in victims of such cruelty, occurring with particular intensity in the hippocampus or area of the brain most directly responsible for regulating emotional experience and expression. Working from this observed trend, Canadian researchers examined the brains of suicide victims who'd also been abused or neglected as children and compared them to those of healthy individuals who'd died in sudden accidents. Study results followed a clear pattern: researchers found genetic abnormalities in all of the suicides and none of the control subjects, and these changes had occurred due to distortions in the most primary levels of tissue.

Investigation revealed that genetic codes themselves didn't change, but the way they expressed themselves did. The protein-producing RNA of each suicide victim had been hypermethylated, or muted via changes in the way related proteins bound to their receptors, and suffered from a state of "reduced expression." The subjects' hippocampi were therefore less active, with many sections actually rendered completely ineffective. This trend amounts, in simple terms, to a blunting of the brain's emotional regulators, and it's a very natural response to such destructively painful mistreatment. Affected children subconsciously learn to suppress their emotions in a manner fundamental enough to prompt permanent genetic changes. It's worth noting that depression and anxiety disorders, as well as drug abuse and addiction, were also considerably more common among the abused suicide victims.

These trends have been observed on a more intimate basis in lab animals. Researchers studying rat "pups" were easily able to tell which mothers were least attentive by watching the behaviors of their offspring, noting that those whose mothers did not groom and care for them as often were commonly anxious and unhealthy. Everything from emotional satisfaction to metabolism seemed to be affected by a failure to satisfy this need for deep maternal connection.

Future studies will be necessary to sure up the findings of this line of research. But the larger point is clear: severe abuses suffered in early life condition the brain and change its entire development in subtle but dramatic ways. The marks of child abuse persist long after the scars themselves have healed, creating adults prone to depression, anxiety, crippling self-doubt and, ultimately, suicide. Can we reverse these fundamental changes in neurochemistry? Research should ultimately lead to effective interventions that can effectively minimize the near-crippling effects of these neurological changes. The earlier these problem cases can be discovered and treated, the less likely they are to end in this most tragic way.

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