February 6, 2013

The Abused Addict: How Trauma Can Change Our DNA

This week, David's continues as a guest blogger and tells us about some of the fascinating research out there regarding how trauma can impact the DNA of some survivors.

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Did I read that correctly? Childhood Sexual Abuse can alter my DNA???

What is wrong with me? Why can't I move on like others are? I stopped using drugs to numb my pain from being sexually abused, and I am facing my demons with a sober mind. Why am I stuck, feeling depressed, anxious, having all of these negative thoughts when I know there is light at the end of the tunnel, not an oncoming train?!

I have since learned that the damage done was much farther reaching than I could have ever imagined. I wondered why it felt like it was taking me longer to work through my struggles than others who had "just abused or were just addicted to drugs regardless of sexual abuse." I recently found a potential reason behind this struggle.

Without getting so nerdy that you are bored to tears, here is the bottom line. Researchers and scientists have documented for the first time that childhood trauma leaves mark on the DNA of some victims. These changes have been shown in three genes: the FKBP5, the 5-HTTLPR, and the CRHR1. 

They have determined that some abused children are at a higher risk of anxiety and mood disorders due to traumatic experiences that can induce lasting changes to their gene regulation. 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. Therefore, they are less able to process and work through their personal challenges, sometimes even leading to suicide.

We talk about DNA as if it’s a template, like a mold for a car part in a factory. But DNA isn’t really like that. It’s more like a script. Think of Romeo and Juliet, different directors using different actors produce different versions. Both productions used Shakespeare’s script, yet the two are entirely different. Identical starting points, different outcomes.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being.

More than 17,000 Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) members undergoing a comprehensive physical examination chose to provide detailed information about their childhood experience of abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction.

The ACE Study findings suggest that certain experiences the leading causes of illness and death as well as poor quality of life in the United States. Progress in preventing and recovering from the nation's worst health and social problems is likely to begin by understanding that many of these problems arise as a consequence of adverse childhood experiences.

Possible legal and policy implications of this area of research remain far in the future, but could include identifying earlier critical periods for childhood intervention programs, better understanding abuse as a mitigating factor if the person is later convicted of a crime related to an abnormal stress response, or calculating damages in a civil lawsuit against the abusive caregiver. The most significant implication is better understanding epigenetic pathology caused by childhood abuse and neglect, which may be an important part of a multi-faceted approach towards treating survivors of abuse who continue to suffer from its lasting effects.

So once again, here is an even greater validation by scientists on the cutting edge of DNA study why we MUST do all we can to prevent childhood sexual abuse in order to ensure that children do not suffer the trauma and long-lasting effects.

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. And isn't that the true bottom-line—protecting children from trauma in the first place?


References
- MPI of Psychiatry, Munich Germany, 2003-2012
- Nature Neuroscience 2012
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention
- Maggie Brown, MS, ELS
- Intramural Research Program of the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism
- Colin A. Hodgkinson, PhD
- Pei-Hong Shen, MS
- Dr. Sarchiapone
- The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology Is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance, by Nessa Carey (Columbia University Press, 2012). 
- Christine Heim, Bekh Bradley, Tanja C. Mletzko, Todd C. Deveau, Dominique L. Musselman, Charles B. Nemeroff, Kerry J. Ressler, and Elisabeth B. Binder
- Benoit Labonte, Volodymyr Yerko, Jeffrey Gross, Naguib Mechawar, Michael J. Meaney, Moshe Szyf, and Gustavo Turecki. Differential Glucocorticoid Receptor Exon 1B, 1C, and 1H Expression and Methylation in Suicide Completers with a History of Childhood Abuse. Biological Psychiatry, 2012
- NIMH
- National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Center for Research Resources
- National Institutes of Health
- Emory and Grady Memorial General Clinical Research Center and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund
- Binder EB, Bradley RG, Wei L, Epstein MP, Deveau TC, Mercer KB, Tang Y, Gillespie CF, Heim CM, Nemeroff CB, Schwartz AC, Cubells JF, Ressler KJ. Association of FKBP5 Polymorphisms and Childhood Abuse With Risk of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms in Adults. Journal of the American Medical Association, 299 (11): 1291-1305. March 18, 2008.
- Kelly Lowenberg, The Stanford Center for Law and Biosciences 
- Moshe Szyf, a McGill University epigeneticist, and Michael Meaney, a McGill University neurologist

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Check in next week for the final installment of David's series.

Learn more about Together We Heal.


David spent years on a healing journey that continues to this very day. This led him to seek out groups specifically for men as well as those who had been through a similar trauma and ultimately inspired the foundation of Together We Heal, an organization focused on providing counseling and guidance for those who have suffered the trauma of childhood sexual abuse.
As the Executive Director of TWH, David works to educate the public through speaking and collaborating with other groups to raise awareness and expose the sexual predator's methods. TWH now works with therapists, counselors and groups aiding both men and women in their efforts to heal, grow and thrive. He is also the South Florida Area Support Group Leader for SNAP, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
TWH follows the saying, "one person might not be able to change the world, but you can change the world of one person."

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