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Child Abuse, Later PTSD Show Distinctive Genetic Signature

Child Abuse, Later PTSD Show Distinctive Genetic SignatureAn international team of researchers has determined that child abuse leaves a distinct change in biological pathways.

Such discoveries have the possibility of leading to new, specific treatment protocols for post-traumatic stress disorder among individuals who experienced child abuse.

In the study, researchers examined adult civilians with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and found that individuals with a history of childhood abuse have distinct, profound changes in gene activity patterns, compared to adults with PTSD but without a history of child abuse.

Investigators took blood samples from 169 participants in the Grady Trauma Project, a study of more than 5,000 Atlanta residents with high levels of exposure to violence, physical and sexual abuse and with high risk for civilian PTSD.

“These are some of the most robust findings to date showing that different biological pathways may describe different subtypes of a psychiatric disorder, which appear similar at the level of symptoms but may be very different at the level of underlying biology,” said Kerry Ressler, M.D., Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University.

“As these pathways become better understood, we expect that distinctly different biological treatments would be implicated for therapy and recovery from PTSD based on the presence or absence of past child abuse.”

Study results are found online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Early Edition.

Divya Mehta, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, Germany,  and her colleagues examined changes in the patterns of which genes were turned on and off in blood cells from patients.

They also looked at patterns of methylation, a DNA modification on top of the four letters of the genetic code that causes genes to be “silenced” or made inactive.

For the study participants were divided into three groups: people who experienced trauma without developing PTSD, people with PTSD who were exposed to child abuse, and people with PTSD who were not exposed to child abuse.

The researchers were surprised to find that although hundreds of genes had significant changes in activity in the PTSD with and without child abuse groups, there was very little overlap in patterns between these groups.

The two groups shared similar symptoms of PTSD, which include intrusive thoughts such as nightmares and flashbacks, avoidance of trauma reminders, and symptoms of hyperarousal and hypervigilance.

The PTSD with child abuse group displayed more changes in genes linked with development of the nervous system and regulation of the immune system, while the PTSD minus child abuse group displayed more changes in genes linked with apoptosis (cell death) and growth rate regulation.

In addition, changes in methylation were more frequent in the PTSD with child abuse group. The authors believe that these biological pathways may lead to different mechanisms of PTSD symptom formation within the brain.

The German group evaluated gene activity in blood cells, rather than brain tissue. Similar results have been obtained by researchers studying the influence of child abuse on the brains of people who had committed suicide.

“Traumatic events that happen in childhood are embedded in the cells for a long time,” said senior author Elisabeth Binder, M.D., Ph.D. “Not only the disease itself, but the individual’s life experience is important in the biology of PTSD, and this should be to be reflected in the way we treat these disorders.”

Source: Emory Health Sciences

Child Abuse, Later PTSD Show Distinctive Genetic Signature

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Child Abuse, Later PTSD Show Distinctive Genetic Signature. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 2 May 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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