Childhood trauma leaves mark on DNA of some victims


Abused children are at high risk of anxiety and mood disorders, as traumatic experience induces lasting changes to their gene regulation. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich have now documented for the first time that genetic variants of the FKBP5 gene can influence epigenetic alterations in this gene induced by early trauma. In individuals with a genetic predisposition, trauma causes long-term changes in DNA methylation leading to a lasting dysregulation of the stress hormone system. As a result, those affected find themselves less able to cope with stressful situations throughout their lives, frequently leading to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety disorders in adulthood. Doctors and scientists hope these discoveries will yield new treatment strategies tailored to individual patients, as well as increased public awareness of the importance of protecting children from trauma and its consequences.

Many human illnesses arise from the interaction of individual genes and environmental influences. Traumatic events, especially in childhood, constitute high risk factors for the emergence of in later life. However, whether early stress actually leads to a psychiatric disorder depends largely on his or her .

Research Group Leader Elisabeth Binder of the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry examined the DNA of almost 2000 Afro-Americans who had been repeatedly and severely traumatised as adults or in childhood. One-third of trauma victims had become ill and was now suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The risk of developing rose with increasing severity of abuse only in the carriers of a specific genetic variant in the FKBP5 gene. FKPB5 determines how effectively the organism can react to stress, and by this regulates the entire stress hormone system. The scientists hoped to cast light on the mechanisms of this gene-environment interaction by comparing modifications of the DNA sequence of victims who had not become ill with that of those who had.

Written By: MedicalXpress
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  1. Sounds convincing but I have a few questions.
    Did they test the DNA of these traumatized people before they were traumatized as well? And did they then discover the difference in the before and after situation? Did all the DNA sequences in the traumatized person, in all his or her zillions of cells, get damaged by the hormones? Did it also affect the DNA in the reproductive cells or were these sheltered form harm (Is it hereditary?). Isn’t it possible that the traumatized people were predispositioned and less well in coping with stressful situations because they had this problem in their DNA? How come not everybody in the world, who has the same ancestors, who most likely went through some really stressful times when wild animals still ate their brothers and sisters and most people didn’t make it to adulthood, has the same problem?
    I don’t think we really need this kind of science to convince people not to traumatize children.

  2. The link takes you to a fascinating series of articles (though you do have to hunt out the links) on the long-term mental stress caused by bullying.

    “Bullying is defined as long-term physical or mental violence by an individual or group.” Am I the only person who finds this definition, while accurate, lacking and unhelpful?

    An article on a related study goes further:
    “The study measured the extent of intrusive memories and avoidance behaviour among pupils. These are two of three defined PTSD symptoms. The third, physiological stress activation, was not covered.”

    Would it be too much to ask that someone now studies whether encountering persistent refutation of ideas, even ideals, also generates such symptoms?

    It would be useful to know if having one’s most cherished beliefs undermined equates to bullying along the lines of the objective measures discovered here.


  3. I would have expected that throughout much of human existence most childhoods would be very traumatic. Our society evolved with little value placed on the lives of children, probably because they didn’t survive long and were useless the first few years of their lives. Go to any third world country if you want a look at the true value of children. Advanced societies kill them in mom’s belly if they are not too recognizable as human. Perhaps not having this trauma gene stamp is new. The freaks are the happy people.

    When a person is convicted of murdering an adult, they go away for life. When the victim is a baby, 5 years. We don’t value children as people. I think they are the only people worth valuing, if not, they grow up to be assholes. Nearly everyone is an asshole.

  4. The title gave me the impression that they found some mutations and made me wonder if the subjects had DNA sequencing done pre-abuse and post-abuse.

    They did have the genetic predisposition for abuse-related PTSD:

    The risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder rose with increasing severity of abuse only in the carriers of a specific genetic variant in the FKBP5 gene.

    It wasn’t the DNA sequence that was damaged, but only in the expression of FKBP5 gene, and this change was only found in those who were traumatized in childhood:

    Extreme stress and the associated high concentrations of stress hormones bring about what is called an epigenetic change. A methyl group is broken off the DNA at this point, causing a marked increase in FKBP5 activity. This lasting epigenetic change is generated primarily through childhood traumatisation. Consequently, no disease-related demethylation of the FKBP5 gene was detected in participants who were traumatised in adulthood only.

  5. Oh boy, this has fed straight in to my parental guilt locker.

    Knowing that all parents suffer from the syndrome doesn’t help in the least.

  6.  Hi Klaasjansch – this changes are highly unlikely to be hereditary. The methylation pattern on germ cell DNA is removed and then specific developmental methylation patterns readded as they mature into sperm and egg. It doesn’t leave much scope for acquired methylation changes to be inherited.


  7. This is really exciting news for medications and other therapies that can be developed. The theory I’ve been working with asserts epigenetic variations (brought on by early-life stress) cause augmentation to the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, which could be said to affect the zillions of cells via hormones (irregular cortisol response). My theory is far from proven and is not supported by the study here (not that I can see at first glance), but that’s a general idea of one mechanism.

    Here is an older (perhaps initial) discovery on the matter, which I find insightful. It’s a bit simpler, looking at rat brains:…

    Speculating on evolution, PTSD may not be simply damage, but perhaps an optional survival mode. If growing up in a war zone or glacial period, PTSD can be a benefit. This is similar to our ability to eat meat if consumed in childhood but inability otherwise. If we must eat meat, we can. If no meat is available, we develop a enzyme profile that allows us to be vegetarian. We switch into different modes that better suit us for a variety of environments. As humans we can thrive as sociopathic warriors, or empathic philosophers. In order to make the most of gentle or savage environments, we have a variety of biological profiles to choose from, kinda like a Swiss Army knife.

    Epigenetics is a fascinating field, and I caution one in researching it as there is a lot of junk data and bad science on it. While there are a lot of valid discoveries, really compelling stuff is still a few years off. Right now is a period of imagination and speculation.

  8. You’re right. It’s more a change on chemical modification induced by the expression of that gene. It shows up in many situations and can sometimes be inherited or reversed.

  9. Thank you all for these reactions. Very interresting. Especially “This is not a meme”. I know a number of people who suffer PTSD and it’s not a pretty picture. However, it might very well be a survival mode. Not all survival solutions are happy ones. The cicle cell is a reaction to malaria (that’s what I heard, I might be wrong) e.g..


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