Childhood abuse can lead to lasting psychological problems in a person’s life, increasing the risk of depression and even suicide later in life. New research suggests that these problems may be traced back to a change in a brain gene as a direct result of the childhood abuse.
The study, led by researchers from McGill University, found that child abuse modifies a gene called NR3C1. This gene in the brain is one thought to affect a person’s ability to deal with stress.
The researchers studied the brains of 24 suicide victims, 12 who had suffered severe childhood abuse, which included physical abuse, neglect or sexual contact, and 12 who had not been abused.
Those who had been abused had lower levels of expression of the gene NR3C1, which is critical for the stress response pathway.
The changes observed in the gene suggests that the trauma associated with child abuse may permanently alter a person’s ability to deal with stress.
The researchers hypothesize that because of the changes in this gene’s expression, people might have trouble turning off their stress response. This could result in a person’s body being in a constant stressful state, leading to future problems with depression, anxiety and possibly even suicide. Further research is needed to confirm this finding.
This finding helps shed light on the gene/environmental interactions and could lead to a future procedure for identifying the gene change. It also suggests that a gene change brought about by environmental influences may also be potentially reversible.
The findings will be published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
Source: Nature Neuroscience