New research in the field of neuroscience has found that early childhood abuse can leave effects beyond life-long emotional scars: it can change a child’s DNA. A new study reveals that changes to DNA that typically come with age are accelerated in the cases of children who witnessed violence.
In an upcoming article in Molecular Psychiatry, researchers at Duke University examined a phenomenon called telomere erosion in children.
Telomeres are sequences on a chromosome that duplicate over the course of one’s life; with every duplication, the telomere shortens. New technologies allow research scientists to examine the length of these DNA segments, and they have been implicated in everything from obesity to smoking and psychiatric disorders.
A review of the literature showed that adults who had experienced childhood adversity had shorter telomeres than others, prompting the Duke study. In a study of more than 2000 children from the ages of 5 to 10, it was found that telomere erosion was accelerated in relation to witnessing violence.
Violence was defined in the study as “exposure to maternal domestic violence, frequent bullying victimization and physical maltreatment by an adult.”
The Duke study was not the first to examine the lasting effects of violence on DNA. Previous literature examining the brains of suicide victims with a history of childhood abuse showed there were changes to the part of their brains that regulates stress. These changes were not found in suicide victims with no abuse history or individuals who died of other causes. Other research on the topic also showed that effects of early abuse could be genetically inherited from a mother to child.
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