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Study Finds Abused Children Develop a Distinct Form of PTSD

Update Date: Apr 30, 2013 12:05 PM EDT

The subject of child abuse and the extent of its consequences on the child's brain and body has been a hard one for scientists to study. Similarly to researching mental illness, scientists have found certain key indicators of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that developed as a result of abuse, but finding distinct similarities between all victims is nearly impossible. However, in a new study, researchers were able to find differences in PTSD that is present in children of abuse when compared to PTSD that develops from other traumatic situations at different moments of time. According to the researchers, abused children who suffer from PTSD might develop a biologically distinct type of the disorder that is not found in people who suffer from PTSD due to other types of trauma later on in life.

The research team, with corresponding author, Divya Mehta who is a postdoctoral student at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, Germany, collected the blood cells of 169 people from Atlanta, GA. These participants were already participating in the Grady Trauma Project and composed mostly of African Americans in their late 30s to mid 40s. The sample set was made up of people who experienced a traumatic life event, such as being held at gun or knifepoint, getting into a major car accident, or being raped. A select group of the participants were also abused when they were children. The researchers noted that the average number of traumatic experiences was seven with 108 of the participants never developing PTSD.

The researchers looked at the blood cells of the 61 remaining participants with PTSD and found that 32 of them were victims of child abuse. The researchers evaluated their blood samples for genetic changes and discovered that victims of child abuse tended to have higher rates of epigenetic changes, which were chemical alterations that did not necessarily mutate DNA but did impact brain development and functioning.

"In PTSD with a history of child abuse, we found a 12-fold higher [level] of epigenetic changes," Mehta stated. The participants who suffered from PTSD later on in life appeared to have more short-term consequences and side effects of the disorder.

The findings suggest that changes in early childhood brain development might make one more susceptible to different disorders. Furthermore, people who were abused as children might also manifest the disorders differently than people who did not experience early traumatic situations. However, more research would need to be done in comparing the effects of the biological differences between the stages of abuse and development of disorders. But if child abuse could be an indicator for future disorders, more preventative measures could be taken to help the individual.

The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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