Childhood trauma leaves mark on DNA of some victims

Abused children are at high risk of anxiety and mood disorders, as traumatic experience induces lasting changes to their gene regulation. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich have now documented for the first time that genetic variants of the FKBP5 gene can influence epigenetic alterations in this gene induced by early trauma.

In individuals with a genetic predisposition, trauma causes long-term changes in DNA methylation leading to a lasting dysregulation of the stress hormone system. As a result, those affected find themselves less able to cope with stressful situations throughout their lives, frequently leading to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety disorders in adulthood.

Doctors and scientists hope these discoveries will yield new treatment strategies tailored to individual patients, as well as increased public awareness of the importance of protecting children from trauma and its consequences.

Many human illnesses arise from the interaction of individual genes and environmental influences. Traumatic events, especially in childhood, constitute high risk factors for the emergence of psychiatric illnesses in later life. However, whether early stress actually leads to a psychiatric disorder depends largely on his or her genetic predisposition.

Research group leader Elisabeth Binder of the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry examined the DNA of almost 2000 Afro-Americans who had been repeatedly and severely traumatised as adults or in childhood. One-third of trauma victims had become ill and was now suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder rose with increasing severity of abuse only in the carriers of a specific genetic variant in the FKBP5 gene.