Childhood Trauma Leaves Behind Emotional & Genetic Scars

sad little girl sitting alone in the dark

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison discovered that neglect, violence, abuse, and trauma endured early in life can affect a child’s molecular structure and distort their DNA, according to a new study. These genetic changes leave children biologically more vulnerable to mental health disorders such as drug abuse, depression, anxiety, and mood disorders.

It’s long been known that childhood trauma is often the root of mental illness, addiction, alcoholism, incarceration, homelessness, and even suicide—and this study simply validates this.

In Milwaukee, where there is an epidemic of childhood trauma, new research has prompted many to collaborate and address the city’s widespread trauma and its aftereffects. Scaling Wellness in Milwaukee, or SWIM, is a group of social agencies, therapists, university researchers, behavioral health clinics, and community activists looking to tackle the trauma epidemic.

Leslie Seltzer, a UW-Madison researcher and one of the study's lead authors, said the impact of trauma can place markers on genes that act as a switch, which determines whether those genes are activated or suppressed. These markers, called epi-genetic modification, affect emotional regulation or depressive disorders.

“Our analysis identified differences in genes that help regulate mood and attachment,” Seltzer said.

Seltzer and her collaborators worked with a group of nearly two dozen girls, ages 9 to 12, who lived through violent or tragic life experiences at an early age, including homelessness, abuse, and separation. Using saliva samples, researchers were able to study their genes and their genetic markers. One finding was that the epigenetic markers can embed themselves for years, suggesting that they could affect a person their entire lives.

As the brain begins growing and maturing during childhood, it creates and strengthens neural connections, which create a network between neurons that provide the brain with its many functions. Childhood trauma significantly impacts the growth of the brain and the continuous stress of experiencing maltreatment can cause structural disruptions, making adults more vulnerable to substance abuse disorders.

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