March 15, 2010

Trauma May Imprint DNA

Childhood trauma may leave a lasting imprint not just on the psyche but also in the DNA. This news comes from McGill University and the Suicide Brain Bank, a Quebec-based organization that carried out autopsies on suicide victims who had been abused as kids. Across the board, their brains showed DNA modifications that made them particularly sensitive to stress. Although gene variations are primarily inherited at conception, the findings show that environmental impacts can also introduce them later on. “The idea that abuse changes how genes function opens a new window for behavioral and drug therapy,” says study leader and neuroscientist Patrick McGowan.

During periods of adversity, the brain triggers release of cortisol, a hormone responsible for the fight-or-flight response. Due to differential gene expression associated with stress, the brains of child-abuse victims had lower levels of glucocorticoid receptors, McGowan found. Cortisol normally binds to these receptors; with fewer of them present, there is more cortisol and less resilience to feelings of stress.

In his study, McGowan reviewed medical records and police reports and interviewed family members to determine whether a subject was abused early in life. He then examined the subjects’ brain tissues and found that among those who had been abused, glucocorticoid-receptor expression was reduced by 40 percent. “If we can identify how these changes occur, we can identify those at high risk and ultimately find ways to treat them,” McGowan says. (see

*I've heard one definition of "to abuse" as "to use for the wrong purpose." Adoptees suffer profound trauma from early separation from their mothers, and are then transferred to strangers with whom they share no genetic markers. Their identity and history is stripped from them through "sealed records" laws. All to fulfill the demand of baby-buyers in a billion-dollar industry. This, my friends, could not be a better definition of "abuse."

Research done by John Bowlby and many others have provided adequate legitimacy to the effects of early separation of mother & baby. Scientists are just now beginning to "prove" these early impacts and how they should be heeded for "best practice" reforms. It seems they are just now beginning to impact the fields of medicine and neonatology but in the field (business) of adoption they continue to be dismissed.


Von said...

What an excellent post!I'll put the link on my blog if I may.

Anonymous said...

So surrender for adoption is like child abuse? Maybe it would be better to determine if a baby being separated from its mother is traumatic or stressful. Studies of infant memory focus on the traumatic, not the stressful. Trauma has a very specific definition and is illustrated in one study as the following:

- child watched mother being blown up by a letter bomb
- 8-month old sexually abused
- airway obstruction or choking
- child repeatedly wrapped in cold wet towels to point of smothering by psychotic mother, removed to foster care at 4 months
- skull fracture at hands of father

I think we lost the fight here when we ask that women who surrender to bear this burden.

Anonymous said...
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*Peach* said...

Thank you for providing the links to these studies.

John Bowlby and others have studied the effects of early separation of mother & baby. Nancy Verrier's work "The Primal Wound" references some of these studies and as an adult adoptee I think we should listen to adoptees themselves to determine the difference between "stressful" and "traumatic" when it comes to the experience of adoption.

halforphan said...

Peach, more information can be found by researching "epigenome". These are chagnes to DNA in addition to evolutionary chagnes from one generation to the next. Factors such as stress, trauma don't have to be due to separation, so "putting the blame" or more guilt/stress uponmothers who relinquish can be better understood in the general sense, too. Irish potatoe famine caused genetic changes in females pregnant through or after the famine, and we know that older men produce sperm that carry defects to produce genetic medical conditions in their offspring. Too much emphasis is placed on mothers. It is time to say it outloud that stresses upon the father also impact the offspring: too old a father's age at the time of conception, poor diet of father, drug and alcohol intact of father and cancer treatments also affect the quality of sperm. It takes 2 to make a baby and 2 parents impact their child in addition to the normal exchange of DNA. Living in an incubator after birth for a premie is also stressful on the baby, but is meant for the health and survival of the infant, but infant doesn't "know" and reacts to stress by interpreting as trauma. I'm a premie, by the way. Early nutrician and bacteria present in the environment and chemicals, too, --- so much to impact how a newborn survives or thrives through childhood to adulthood. Economics also influences stress/trauma responses.

Great post!