Lack of childhood nurturing changes the DNA

Childhood maltreatment causes genetic changes that can increase risk for psychiatric disorders

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Difficult problems in childhood have long been linked to depression, anxiety and other mental health issues later in life.

But childhood adversity appears to also cause actual changes in DNA functionality. Such early trauma can change the functionality of genes, in a way that increases the risk for psychiatric disorders.

"Children need nurturing to lessen risk of psychiatric issues."

Dr. Audrey Tyrka of Butler Hospital, and associate professor at Brown University, led a research group that studied 99 healthy adults, some of whom had a history of childhood maltreatment or early parental loss from either death or abandonment. Researchers took blood samples from the participants, from which their DNA was extracted.

On a separate day, participants also completed a standardized neuroendocrine challenge test, which gave researchers information on their dexamethasone/corticotropin-releasing hormone.

The DNA was then analyzed to identify possible changes in the glucocorticoid receptor gene, which is an important regulator of the biological stress response. Such changes can increase the risk for psychiatric problems.

The researchers found that among the participants with a disruption or lack of adequate nurturing in childhood, there were changes in the way this receptor gene behaved. Such childhood trauma was linked with increased NR3C1, the receptor gene that responds to stress. There were also links to cortisol responses in those participants.

"A history of early adverse experiences is an important risk factor for adult psychopathology," Tyrka and associates wrote in the journal PLoS One. "These findings suggest that childhood maltreatment or adversity may lead to epigenetic modifications of the human GR gene."

Tyrka said that we need to understand the biology of these genetic changes from early trauma, in order to develop better prevention and treatment programs. "Our results suggest that exposure to stressful experiences during childhood may actually alter the programming of an individual's genome. This concept may have broad public health implications, because it linked childhood trauma with poor health outcomes."

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Review Date: 
March 2, 2012
Last Updated:
March 3, 2012