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Traumatic Experiences Weaken Immune-System Gene

Anxiety disorders have been known to have physical implications. Now, a study by researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health states that traumatic experiences leaves physical traces in a person’s genes, compromises their immune system and leads to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Our findings suggest a new biological model of PTSD in which alteration of genes, induced by a traumatic event, changes a person’s stress response and leads to the disorder,” said Sandro Galea, MD, professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health, and principal investigator.

Researchers obtained DNA samples from 100 patients taking part in a Detroit health study (a study focused on learning about PTSD and other mental disorders). More than 14,000 gene samples were studied from the participants, 23 of which were known to have post-traumatic stress disorder. This was the first large-scale study of its kind.

What researchers found was striking.

The DNA in the group with PTSD showed a significant increase of a gene that made them more vulnerable to multiple types of sicknesses. One particular gene, called the unmethylated gene, was more abundant in PTSD patients than in non-PTSD patients. This increase proved to drastically impact a person’s life. Their immune systems ultimately were compromised.

“Identification of the biologic underpinnings of PTSD will be crucial for developing appropriate psychological and/or pharmacological interventions, particularly in the wake of an increasing number of military veterans returning home following recent wars worldwide,” said Dr. Galea.

The significance of this particular study may result in finding ways to more accurately treat people who have been in traumatic situations. And possibly lead to treating the problem before the expressed symptoms arise.

After all, post-traumatic stress disorder can develop at any age. And can be brought on by any experience a person perceives to be traumatic. The resulting effect can lead to a person being depressed, abusing drugs and even exhibiting violent behavior.

The report states this erratic reaction to stress causes the body’s natural response system to become overactive, and thus comprises the immune system. This research explains why people with PTSD have always been more susceptible to diabetes and cardiovascular disease, among many other disorders.

“Our findings show that PTSD may be associated with epigenetic changes in immune-system genes. If this is the case, these clusters could provide clues to our understanding of how a traumatic event changes gene expression, thus altering immune function and resulting in other possible physiologic alterations,” says Dr. Galea.

Traumatic Experiences Weaken Immune-System Gene

Rochelle Oliver, Associate News Editor

APA Reference
Associate News Editor, R. (2018). Traumatic Experiences Weaken Immune-System Gene. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 4 May 2010)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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