The Epigenetics of Childhood Trauma

By Diane McIntosh MD, FRCPC: For More Info, Go Here…

Part 2: How childhood adversity can provoke serious long-term consequences.

This is the second of two blogs regarding the epigenetics of childhood adversity, which is based on excerpts from my new book, This Is Depression. Just like cigarette toxins can cause cancer, there is growing evidence that serious stressors, especially early in life, can alter gene expression and provoke physical and mental illness later in life.

Most of the scientific research conducted to understand the power of early life adversity has been done with rats. Because human babies are not appropriate study subjects, since they should never be exposed to serious stress, we are still at the stage of drawing inferences from rat and other animal studies, but the massive quantity of research in this area is building confidence about the findings and their applicability to human beings.

Parenting of human babies can be performed by loving, nurturing caregivers of either sex. However, rat dads are generally deadbeats, while rat moms tend to be the caring nurturers, thus most adversity studies are conducted on rat moms and their pups. Researchers create rat models of stress, exposing rat moms to stressful environments that simulate the stress a human parent might experience, and then assess the impact on their offspring.

Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse is tremendously harmful to developing brains and bodies. Neglect, chaos, and unpredictable, fragmented parenting can also result in enduring harm and impairment.

The epigenetic changes these stressful exposures provoke might also be heritable. This means that children who have been harmed by a stressful childhood, resulting in epigenetic changes to their genome, can pass those genetic alterations down to their offspring. As a result, their children might also have an abnormal, excessive stress response and a heightened risk of mental and physical illnesses.

If something that was highly distressing, traumatic, and unfair happened to you as a child, that does not define you. Many people have crappy childhoods, enduring abuse, neglect, chaos, and loss, and become happy, fulfilled, generous, loving people. They also become great parents, partners, siblings, and members of the community.

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