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Ideas | Kelly Kasulis

Study suggests abused children carry trauma in their DNA

3d render illustration DNA structure in blue background.
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Childhood trauma is already known for following us into our adult lives — and even to the grave. Research has shown that children with profound stress are more at risk of developing autoimmune diseases, obesity, mental health disorders, and heart disease.

But now, a preliminary study from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the University of British Columbia suggests that abused children literally carry their darkest experiences with them in their DNA.

Researchers gathered sperm samples from 34 adult men, some of whom were abused as children, and examined the chemical markings on their genome. These markings basically turn certain genes on, off, up or down — a process known as epigenetics — and are believed to affect the way our bodies and minds work.

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“A lot of people ask, ‘How does child abuse get under the skin?’” said Andrea Lynne Roberts, one of the study’s authors and a research scientist in the Harvard public health school’s Department of Environmental Health. “We’ve learned that children who are abused have physical and mental health issues during their whole life. Epigenetics, or these marks on DNA, is one hypothesis for how that happens.”

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Roberts and her colleagues found that study participants who experienced child abuse had noticeably different DNA markings than those who did not. In other words, child abuse might be altering our very DNA — and for adult men, there’s a possibility that these changes could be passed onto their children when the father’s sperm meets the mother’s egg.

“It’s plausible to think that, if an experience in the dad has affected his DNA, that [changed] DNA is what will make a new baby,” said Daniele Fallin, a professor and chair of the Department of Mental Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who was not involved in the study. “That is the argument that’s being made . . . And it’s probable that it can impact the child because we know epigenetic markers in our DNA in early life can affect our health.”

In the future, scientists could potentially use these chemical markings as supporting evidence during trials involving abuse allegations. However, researchers have not yet been able to distinguish different types of child abuse (for example, emotional versus physical) — and still, this study needs to be repeated with a larger sample of adult males.

“It’s convenient to think that we are all masters of our own destiny, but research shows there’s a lot of generational passing of physical and mental heath,” Roberts said. “We don’t come into this life on an even playing field — that’s one takeaway.”

Kelly Kasulis is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter: @KasulisK.