New Research: Childhood Stress Can Re-wire Your Biology

You probably realize that childhood trauma can lead to long-term physical and emotional problems, but new research from UW-Madison has found that there may be biological rather than  just psychological reasons for these issues.

In a recent study, scientists found that severe trauma or maltreatment appears to turn off a gene we have which regulates stress.This latest finding suggests that abuse, poverty or neglect early in life actually physically alter the brain, leading to proneness to depression, heart disease, cancer, anxiety and a number of other illnesses.

As well as physical or psychological illnesses, the parenting we receive can reconfigure our biology in such a way that it leads to behavioral or social problems.

In one example of a possible physical response, it is thought that in cases of childhood trauma, parts of the brain may shrink, leading to abnormal hormone responses that could lead to risky sexual behavior in girls.

The study involved children who were referred through the Dane County Department of Human Services, of which one third had been physically abused. Blood samples were taken and tested. In those who had been abused, blood samples showed less activation of the glucocorticoid receptor gene, which regulates the hormone cortisol, the primary stress hormone.

Cortisol is fine in limited quantities under normal circumstances, but in the cases of tramatized children who do not have the activated gene, the stress response system isn’t able to shut down which means they can suffer from prolonged periods of upset and weakened immune systems.

Of course, sadly what this means is that children who have suffered through a traumatic early childhood may end up in a cycle of compromised choices leading to further trauma. For example, the teen pregnancy rate is higher amongst abused children and the likelihood of being in unhealthy relationships is also higher.

What can be done for children who exhibit these symptoms? More study in this field is required, but studies on animals suggest that restoring normal care-giving could repair the damage. Scientists also point to possible benefits from therapy or medication to help undo the damage caused.