Childhood traumas can alter your DNA

February 24th, 2009 - 1:52 pm ICT by IANS  

Toronto, Feb 24 (IANS) Childhood traumas can alter your DNA and leave a lasting effect on the brain, a Canadian study has found.
According to researchers at Montreal’s McGill University and Douglas Institute, traumas in childhood - and maternal care - can shape the way your genes work and thus make you suicide-prone.

As part of their research, the scientists studied a sample of 36 brains which included 12 suicide victims who were abused, 12 suicide victims who were not abused and 12 others.

The researchers found that the brains of the abused group had different epigenetic markings.

These markings control the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) function in the brain which regulates response to stress and increases the risk of suicide, a university statement said Monday.

The current research has built upon an earlier study to uncover how parental care affects the DNA in the brains of a group of male suicide victims who suffered abuse as children, the statement added.

“We know from clinical experience that a difficult childhood can have an impact on the course of a person’s life,” said Gustavo Turecki, associate professor of psychiatry in the university.

“Now we are starting to understand the biological implications of such psychological abuse,” he said.

“The function of our DNA is not as fixed as previously believed,” added co-researcher Michael Meaney.

“The interaction between the environment and the DNA plays a crucial role in determining our resistance to stress thus the risk for suicide. Epigenetic marks are the product of this interaction,” he said.

Though the DNA inherited from parents remains fixed throughout life, it is marked by a chemical coating during gestation and later in development.

These (epigenetic) marks punctuate the DNA and programme it for responses to different situations in later life, the statement said.

Citing their earlier study on rats that shows that maternal care also influences hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) function in the brain, the researchers said that in humans, child abuse alters HPA stress responses and increases the risk for suicide.

However, these effects can also be reversed in adult life through treatments that alter these epigenetic marks in the brain.

Further research on brain tissue can help develop intervention and prevention programmes to help people, the researchers said.

The study has been published in the Feb 22 issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience.

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