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Childhood Abuse affects Children’s Gene Expression

Update Date: Jul 24, 2014 11:38 AM EDT

Children who were victims of physical or emotional abuse tend to develop health problems in these two categories. In a new study, researchers examined how children's genes were activated in response to maltreatment. The team from the University of Wisconsin, Madison was able to assess the degree to which a gene was turned "on" or "off" based on a biochemical process known as methylation.

For this study, the researchers recruited 56 children between the ages of 11 and 14. Half of the sample was physically abused. The researchers collected everyone's blood samples and examined DNA methylation, which is a mechanism that cells use to turn on or turn off genes.

The researchers found that the children suffering from abuse had increased methylation on multiple areas in the NR3C1 (glucocorticoid receptor) gene. The affected areas were linked to brain development and could explain why abused children suffer from emotional regulation and physical health problems. The researchers added that there were no differences in the genes that the children were naturally born with. The difference between the two groups of children was the gene activation.

"This link between early life stress and changes in genes may uncover how early childhood experiences get under the skin and confer lifelong risk. Our finding that children who were physically maltreated display a specific change to the glucocorticoid receptor gene could explain why abused children have more emotional difficulties as they age," study's lead director, Seth D. Pollak, professor of psychology and pediatrics at the University of Washinton, Madison said according to the press release. "They may have fewer glucocorticoid receptors in their brains, which would impair the brain's stress-response system and result in problems regulating stress."

The study was published in the journal, Child Development.

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