Abused Children May Get Unique Form of PTSD

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Child abuse scars not just the brain and body, but, according to the latest research, but may leave its mark on genes as well.

The research, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that abused children who develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may experience a biologically distinct form of the disorder from PTSD caused by other types of trauma later in life.

“The main aim of our study was to address the question of whether patients with same clinical diagnosis but different early environments have the same underlying biology,” says Divya Mehta, corresponding author of the study and a postdoctoral student at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, Germany.  

To find out, Mehta’s team studied blood cells from 169 people in Atlanta who were participating in the Grady Trauma Project.  Most were in their late 30s to mid 40s and were African American; some had been abused as children but all had suffered at least two other significant traumatic events, such as being held at gun- or knife point, having a major car accident or being raped. On average, the participants experienced seven major traumas. Despite these events, however, the majority were resilient: 108 participants never developed PTSD.

Among the 61 that did, 32 had been abused as children and 29 had not.  The authors examined their blood cells, looking for genetic changes that distinguished people with the disorder who had been abused from those who had not. To focus on changes associated with PTSD diagnosis rather than trauma exposure alone, they looked for differences not seen in the resilient group.

MOREHow Child Abuse Primes the Brain for Future Mental Illness

These genetic alterations are known as epigenetic changes: chemical differences that don’t mutate the DNA itself but affect how actively and efficiently the genes are made into proteins. By either silencing or activating genes, epigenetic changes can influence everything from brain development and functioning to the risk for certain diseases. While not necessarily permanent, some of these changes can last a lifetime and some can even be passed on to the next generation.

“In PTSD with a history of child abuse, we found a 12-fold higher [level] of epigenetic changes,” says Mehta.  In contrast, people who experienced trauma later in life showed genetic effects that tended to be short-lived, and did not permanently alter the function of the genes.

“It’s a very interesting paper,” says Moshe Szyf, professor of pharmacology and therapeutics at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who studies epigenetics. “The important thing about this paper is that it looks at PTSD that has different life histories. One group has a life history of child abuse and the other doesn’t and we see a completely different functional genomic appearance.”

Understanding the different ways that people can develop PTSD could have implications for how the condition is treated. The epigenetic changes were mostly different between the two groups, even if both sets of aberrations ultimately resulted in PTSD, suggesting different ways to potential treat the PTSD depending on its origins.“This study implies that it is essential to take into account the trauma history of an individual,” says Mehta, “Individuals with the same diagnosis might need different treatments depending on their environmental endowments together with their genetic predispositions.”

MORE: Psychological Abuse: More Common, As Harmful As Other Child Maltreatment

Indeed, at least with depression, which is another condition with links to traumatic experiences, some studies found that a childhood history of maltreatment was associated with a reduced response to antidepressants and some other therapies.

“The question is, if indeed the problem is in the DNA, can we reverse this program and do we have tools to reverse that?” says Szyf. “I’m very interested in that and we’re doing some experiments in animal models.” The group is using drugs that can affect gene expression, such as some cancer treatments, for example, to figure out whether they can help to reverse harmful epigenetic changes like those leading to PSTD-like symptoms in animals.

Dr. Elisabeth Binder, the principal investigator of the current research and research group leader at the Max Planck Institute, says, “If individuals have been abused as children, they end up having psychiatric diseases that might be biologically different. The way you got to the disease is as important as the disease itself.”

MORE: Child Abuse Pediatricians Recommend Basic Parenting Classes to Reduce Maltreatment and Neglect

Still, since the researchers compared child abuse to other types of trauma that typically occurred when participants were in their early 20s, Mehta says it’s impossible to say whether it was simply the early timing of the child abuse or something unique to being mistreated by caregivers that accounted for the different pattern of changes she and her colleagues found. Other research showed both that early trauma is particularly significant and that child abuse can have an especially pernicious effect on the developing brain, but it’s hard to disentangle them. In addition, it’s possible that early trauma and the damage associated with it work synergistically in contributing to the response to trauma. For example, studies on Romanian orphans show that the longer an infant is kept in an abusive and neglectful setting, the greater the damage to IQ and the higher the risk of psychiatric problems.

Whether these genetic markers can reliably be related to childhood trauma and then used to help guide treatment, isn’t clear yet. But the results suggest that such refined strategies might at least be possible. Depending on the patient’s experience, for example, trauma linked to childhood abuse may respond better to certain drugs acting on one pathway, while adult-onset trauma, such as being a victim of rape, might require targeting a different set of genes or proteins.  The more we understand how trauma does harm, the better able we will be to reverse the damage or even actually prevent it from causing disease.

MORE: How Terror Hijacks The Brain

52 comments
sitnot63
sitnot63

I just want to know why I can't get those thoughts of ,getting the he'll out of here, out if my head. At 51 years old with adult children . I'm the oldest of young parents. My dad was an only child ,rich kid .Well he didn't know how to play well or share plus a real big bully . With a licence to kick my assss. But i really got used to it. So I was prepared. I'm a veteran too. Still in my head.. if I had a dollar for everythought I'd have about a million . And I'm still here. Go figure.

alivebygrace
alivebygrace

War zone ptsd labels who decides.All I know is my truth I'm a 62 yr old female and another nightmare last night.I've had 34 years of recovery 12 step groups church meds institutions.Adrunken father loading a gun or going for gas to burn us.A mentally ill brother molesting me and another bothernot much better.Incest and almost every male I came in contact with as a child abused me.I have healed so much just knowing what happened to me wasn't normal but I was but became very broken.i could write a book as all sufferers and certainly all humans can.However Adults who have had these aweful chilhoods need so much love and understanding I don't care what you know but I want to know how much you care.I was on a walk for cancer yesterday so acceptd but this ptsd of adult children is still in the dark ages we are heroes of war we are still suffering but there is hope and there are ways out of the darkeness.I could go on but blessings to us all and all those who advocate



AmandaGray1
AmandaGray1

what would you suggest then for a children or group of children now adults varying from 30-50 yrs old who were abused by someone who had been in the airforce and clearly had severe ptsd? The man basically lived his life causing or repeating his own traumas on his children and wives. He was only treated for a yr and then became an alcoholic that severely abused my mom myself and my sister. His ex-wives and his sons from those wives. The alcohol accentuated the abuse and its wasn't typical form either hed throw glass beer bottles and say they were granades they would land at your feet I was 5 at the time. He would throw lit cigarettes at me too burn us knives and forks when wed ask for food while my mom was at work he throw cans of spegetti os at us and say cook this and kick the chairs while I tried to cook at 5or 6 yrs old. Hed go to jail get bonded out and treated like just because he was in airforce for a few years that menat he couldn't be held accountable it wasn't till I was 17 that a judge finally said one more abuse charge your going to prison that didn't happen till all of his kids and wives suffered for years and even now you smell his old spice cologne or smell beer whisky or vodka you remember and relive you hear kids screaming and crying or people fighting you revert to that point in time when you were 5 yrs old defenseless and scared. If you were a girl it was worse, like for me and my sister and mom. my mom stayed married to  him for 13 yrs and everyday was chaos, fear filled and unpredictable like living with a loose cannon in a diamond house and have to go to school. I would protect my sister my mom would protect us when she wasn't at work but the second shed leave you  had to have thick skin girls were worthless etc.  One specific memory that haunts me is when our puppy one morning after a fight my parents had ate beer bottle glass from a beer bottle my dad threw and the puppy was gagging and spitting blood on the floor he kicked it called my mom a bitch and shoved her as he walked out the door for work and said he was leaving for work. He acted like it was her fault and the puppies. Or the incident when he was drunk and he was attacking my mom throwing beer bottles that would smash on the floor and hitting her pushing her chocking her with me and my sister there I was crying and he start after me my brother saved us and my dad attacked him and banned him from coming over again.

LindaDeir
LindaDeir

I was one of the fortunate kids - I discovered something very powerful as an abused baby. I asked for help and hoped that someone was listening. Fortunately there were many listeners, hence my new book: GUIDED.. It's a true story and will be available on Amazon November 9, 2014.

synchromorph
synchromorph

I was abused to the point that my former fiancee (former because she committed suicide 3 years ago) had referred to me as "The Boy Named It." Then on top of that I was abused by doctors and therapists who were supposed to be helping me get over the previous traumas. Yet, despite all of that, I have a recently measured IQ of 155, which makes me a literal genius. If childhood abuse lowers a person's IQ, it makes you wonder what mine might have been had a not been abused.


And it continues. Eventually, I will basically be forced into suicide and all too happy to leave this effed up world.

lorrgeno
lorrgeno

I not only suffer mentally, I suffer physically too from a compromised immune system. I have psoriatic arthritis, the only one on either side of this mess of a family with it. The drugs I have to take leave me open to all kinds of other physical ailments which cause the circle of dispair and depression to keep going round and round.

As I become older I become more depressed. The meds keep the depression on an even keel.

Now that I been diagnosed as a rapid cycle bipolar and have borderline personality disorder I see that what I thought was wild fun back in the day was just out of control mania. I kind of miss it. I had a good time, mostly...

lorrgeno
lorrgeno

I was diagnosed by two different therapists with PTSD from child abuse. I'm embarrassed to tell anyone or even to discuss it with my husband after all, so I got "yelled at". Even my old father ask me why I "haven't gotten over it yet"...sigh. Like Sarahfoot before me, I wish I was never born. 

I have zero coping skills. I think I stopped growing emotionally at about 12 or 13. I have pretended to be an adult and I guess from the outside it's looked OK...from an outsider looking in. From me, it's been just awful. I feel sorry for the people who were stuck with me as they were cheated out of a mother and a wife. They did get a fairly funny comedian as I believe it or not have a damned good sense of humor...go figure that one.

I feel so cheated out of having what might have been a full and interesting life being raised by a mentally ill narcissistic monster who used and abused me every moment of my miserable life because I was suppose to shine for her and 99% of the time I failed at that and was never allowed to forget how I let her down.....she dropped dead last Nov...to everyone who told me I needed for my own sake to make peace with her..HA you were wrong...she went out with me telling her to "go F88K herself and it felt good

But in the meantime. I cant make the terrible hurt inside of me go away..No drugs, no amount of therapy helps and I cant take the pain of being me. ASny outside stress makes it 1000x worse too

LindyAbbott
LindyAbbott

" that child abuse can have an especially pernicious effect on the developing brain, but it’s hard to disentangle them." 

I think of all that is said in this article this is  the most interesting point. A person who has suffered child abuse can have development brain issues. This is why trauma therapy that often deals with brain therapy (as in EMDR and brainspotting) can be so successful in helping to heal people who survive severe child abuse!

cyclebreaker
cyclebreaker

Ah, so much to say, so little time. As a survivor this article gave me some hope that one day my psycological issues resulting from childhood trauma might be addressed. I have spent much energy trying to heal without guidance to no avail. So little is known that the only people who get it, are survivors like me, who are in no position to help, and many counselors and such do more harm than good simply from their lack of understanding. 

supervioletrain
supervioletrain

Excuse me, what do they mean they're "doing some experiments in animal models"? First of all, animals are not "models". That's such a euphemism. Why would they cause "PTSD-like symptoms in animals"? This article isn't clear whether these researchers are causing animals to experience PTSD-like symptoms or not...

SarahFoot
SarahFoot

I think this article makes some sense since people who go to war are usually young, but they are adults and have a foundation of 18 years of "normalcy", but children who are abused are thrown into "war" from the beginning of their life, and it is all they know.  Why do vets get so much support (I'm glad they do btw) and yet adults who were abused as children:  Essentially, they were born into a war!!!, but get ignored and told to deal with it and that it's over and your an adult now so FUnction like one!  


I was born into a war that lasted most of my childhood...and I have never recovered, and there is no help.  I used to believe that I was lucky to live through it... but now I wish I hadn't.

deblynnpritchard
deblynnpritchard

What I'd like to know is why they qualify PTSD that abused children may get as "unique". Really? With the number of abused children in the U.S. who are lucky enough to survive their childhoods after years of abuse and neglect, they call this PTSD unique. There are so many children who suffer abuse throughout their entire childhoods which can be as long as 20 years of severe abuse. The PTSD they develop after years of abuse has been ignored in favor of war vets. War vets deserve to be treated, but children do not deserve to have their same agonizing and life threatening symptoms of PTSD ignored. There are too many children who suffer from this "unique" form of PTSD to call it unique. As adults they continue to suffer from this debilitating condition, which has been ignored for too long.

robin12345
robin12345

people can put up with a lot of abuse and do not need to be taught to live as lambs.  I don't appreciate this abuse.

robin12345
robin12345

god gives you "PTSD" so that you become a controlled woman.  childhood abuse is not scarring.  that's a gimmick.

Blackkat
Blackkat

Have any studies been conducted on the epigenetics of those who witnessed domestic abuse in the home as children?

DBritt
DBritt

I'm not sure I like the term "resilient" in this context.  It seems to imply a lack of fortitude in those who develop PTSD, which is probably not what is intended.  Perhaps the field should consider a change of terminology.  Very interesting work all the same.

bouldereyes
bouldereyes

@buzzreview The problem that the people who are abusive are also traumatized by war, incest, child abuse, surgery, etc. Punishing people unnecessarily is abuse as well. 

JayBe
JayBe

@AmandaGray1 So sorry to hear Amanda, you and your family did not deserve it .  I believe it all. You ask what do people  suggest ? As a survivor of a  family a bit like yours I carried it  alone for 45 years, Most psychs dont seem to have a clue really, feels like they were giving me hair styling or manicures when  wounds  went untreated. Now i go to docs and  challenge them to do their  research .and their job. Groups online of  fellow survivors I found best, sharing support and informaton, meditation, sometimes prayer and physical exercise, and best of all, learning to love and nurture myself.

birdbrain
birdbrain

@lorrgeno  Wow, I've felt the same thing.  I am in my 40s but I've always felt like a 10-year-old in my head.  I think the abuse became unbearable around the age of ten and I dissociated.  I have felt like a spectator in life.  I watch other people leading full lives but I am saddled with anxiety,PTSD, daily flashbacks and OCD I have nightmares  and am afraid of everything.  I've been to therapy but they pretty much just stared at me then took my money.  Medication helped some.

alittlefearless
alittlefearless

@lorrgeno  Believe it or not I know exactly how you feel. I've said the same things you wrote here, almost verbatim...and ditto on feeling like being cheated out of a full and interesting life. Hell, ditto on all of it.

I'm trying my hardest to overcome all of those feelings. Check out my blog and read my About Me pages - I have a feeling there's a lot there that you can relate to: http://www.alittlefearless.com

And feel free to share your story, too. Just knowing that you're not alone helps so much. I hope you feel better soon. Keep trying! The hurt never goes away, but life can get better <3

LindyAbbott
LindyAbbott

@cyclebreaker I encourage you for sharing! I know how hard it is to find a good, qualified counselor. I too am a survivor. I highly recommend finding someone who has lots of trauma therapy experience using brain therapies like EMDR and Brainspotting. So many people are presenting themselves as qualified counselors when they are really not even that great at talking and listening. I hope you can find the help you need to break the cycle! I am a cycle breaker also! :)


lorrgeno
lorrgeno

@SarahFoot  I know exactly what you mean...where is the help for us? I don't want to die but I too wish I was never born...This life is just too hard to deal with. I never learned any coping skills at all. I have faked living as an adult for the last 50 something years. Funny thing is I still feel like I'm 12...which is probably where I stopped growing emotionally. Thankfully the witch, my abuser finally dropped dead last year but that just means I don't have to avoid her needy soul sucking phone calls anymore.....

Now, how do we, people like me and Sarahfoot get fixed?

LindyAbbott
LindyAbbott

@SarahFoot I think you made a great point about being born into "war"! Any person who has survived a childhood warzone knows what you are talking about. Sarah, yes, there is help! You were lucky to live through it and getting healing/help is not easy. I have written a lot about my journey in trauma therapy healing on a blog. I want you to not give up.

LindyAbbott
LindyAbbott

@deblynnpritchard I am not sure "unique" in the sense of being rare or not enough children are experience effects of childabuse are a proper way of seeing this. I do think child abuse does often cause many of the same symptoms of PTSD but the illness should have its own category like Child Development Disorder because these adults who need healing have unique needs that someone who had a normal or ever average childhood do not have. Most usually someone coming from child abuse does not have a family support network or adult relationship skills.

cyclebreaker
cyclebreaker

@robin12345  

Sorry Robin but you are wrong about that. I don't know what you are qualifying as abuse but my definition includes ongoing sexual perversion/molestation throughout formative years, just for starters. It changes the structure of your brain and robs/distorts your memory. The result is very scarring and is in fact the complete opposite of control, especially during flashbacks & panic attacks. The fact that we know so little about how to help people who suffer this "unique" form of PTSD makes me feel crazy and worthless. The lack of understanding only further perpetuates the pain. 

SarahFoot
SarahFoot

@Blackkat I think it would be similar to watching your buddies die or get injured by "friendly fire"  (except that the parent who injures the other is not sorry,) Since your parent is harming the other parent.


What I would like to know is what does it do to a child who witnesses parent-on-parent violence so much that they get used to it.  By the time I was 11 or 12, it was normal for me.  Not that I liked it... but it was normal.  But as an adult I am overly sensitive to it now... which is interesting.

JessHood
JessHood

@Blackkat I would be interested to see what they qualified as child abuse, because this is likely an overlapping area.

synchromorph
synchromorph

@DBritt "Resilient" means the ability to "bounce back" and recover from trauma, which is much easier for people with "normal" nervous systems. A person born with a highly sensitive system is naturally predisposed to being able to recover from trauma, especially ritualistic abuse. In such cases, their system's ability to rapidly learn and adapt is actually used against itself.

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

@DBritt "Resilient":  To bounce back to the initial situation, as was before the disturbance. 

I don't think most children had PTSD before their abuse, or whatever.  Thus, they have not returned to their original state and are not "resilient".  No one's saying that there's anything wrong or "weak" with someone if he ended up with PTSD while someone else didn't.  Don't read more into the word than exists, please.

synchromorph
synchromorph

@thewholetruth Sometimes suicide is the best of all possible outcomes. What sane person would want to live in this essentially sadomasochistic society and continually subject themselves to further abuse? They wouldn't.

cyclebreaker
cyclebreaker

@thewholetruth  

Soooo true. Unfortunately the problem with prosecuting the abuser is that the victim/survivor is usually so busy just trying to cope that just the thought of the abuser can send them into a downward spiral; How can the victim find the strength to testify without losing what little strength they have? The abuser knows this and counts on it to continue exerting their power over the weak. 

LindyAbbott
LindyAbbott

@thewholetruth I so agree with your comment. My parents never received any punishment for the crime of very severe childabuse that not only effected my own life but also made life very hard for my children while I was healing. There is not enough help available to people who are in the trenches healing from 18 years of severe childabuse. 

AmandaGray1
AmandaGray1

@cyclebreaker @robin12345  I have to say something hear I was sexually abused physically abused by a man who became an alcoholic after being in the airforce who suffered from ptsd himself for 13 yrs . It started when he first found out my mom was carrying me after I was born my mom had to sleep with me to keep me safe. I was 5 yrs old raising my sister as a baby feeding her changing her etc and protecting her from. But because he was in the airforce he was treated as a "HERO" and none would intervene. I was diagnosed with ptsd with severe depression and anxiety my mom divorced him when I turned 13. After that the state forced us to have visits with him every other weekend until it could be proven he was abusive we discovered while in the airforce he abused not only his 5 ex-wives kids but his side girlfriends children as well it was documented. all these kids all have forms of ptsd from him. You don't think that this is real you are a troll and according to the 12 therapists psychologist and many tests I went through it is real and will always be a real illness

AmandaGray1
AmandaGray1

@JessHood @Blackkat  Abuse would be in example what I went through watching my puppy die eating glass from a beer bottle my dad smashed pretending it was a grenade. Or the many times my mom got her face puched or the many times he watch me in the shower or change. Or the many  times he throw knives at all us kids or throwing my brother down the stairs who now has permanent seizures. All due to trauma my dad experienced as a airforce pilot became an alcoholic.

LindyAbbott
LindyAbbott

@JenniferBonin @DBritt I like your response. Everyone deals with what happens to them in life differently and it has to do with personality, environment and experience. I am one of 8 children who were all abused and all 8 have turned out very differently and needed very different type of healing help. 


JessHood
JessHood

@JenniferBonin @DBritt I don't think it's even "reading into it," it's addressing the connotations attached to the word. It's not a matter of being PC or whether or not people are offended, but rather that it's important to say precisely what you mean. I think given the connotation and what it implies being potentially incorrect or extraneous to what they actually meant to say, a different word would be better. "Unaffected" seems appropriate.

swkassociates
swkassociates

@JenniferBonin @DBritt Jennifer, as someone who is in recovery from ptsd, I agree with DBritt. What surprises me is your defensive reaction to that. Take that defensiveness and put yourself in the position of someone who has been labeled already. WE are already defensive after being treated as 'less than'.  'Unaffected' is a great choice if you want your work to be accepted by the growing body of providers outside your field such as peer support specialists...While your work might have merit, your attitude could contribute more compassion to those who are suffering from this debilitating disease.

DBritt
DBritt

@JenniferBonin I'm not saying the term intends to denigrate those people who have PTSD.  But if you had PTSD and read this article you might take away from it that you lack resilience.  Even if you understood that it was just a medical term not meant to imply anything about your personality, it could sting.  I think a little empathy should go into the selection of medical terms when they apply to people, particularly when they describe something such as PTSD.

cyclebreaker
cyclebreaker

@LindyAbbott @thewholetruth  I feel your pain.Being a good Mom is the best and most important thing I do with my life, and yet even my ability to do that is hampered by my past. Living in the trenches is hard. I am now able to speak of it in a detached way and am often crushed even by  well meaning people when they respond with something like"yeah everybody goes through stuff"  REALLY! People rally around war vets and cancer patients and other sick people(rightfully so) with much compassion; but a victim of child abuse is rarely acknowledged in their struggles,much less supported. As usual we are forced to suffer in silence and are left with the idea that we just don't matter to anyone. There is such a lack of understanding and most people don't care about what they don't understand.

cyclebreaker
cyclebreaker

@DBritt @JenniferBonin

The term, I believe, is called negative transfer. When a healthy individual receives constructive criticism, it is just that. When a survivor receives constructive criticism they hear "You are stupid, worthless, etc....and you'd be better off dead." Extra care and compassion must be exercised to avoid sending the wrong message and sending them off the deep end. To you it's just a word, for me, it's a trigger.

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

@DBritt @JenniferBonin And yet, precisely what term would you suggest using that CAN'T have the same unintended connotation to those sensitive about it?  I suspect that any word you use, no matter how PC or well-intended, could be taken wrong by those who are already hurt and/or angry.

LindyAbbott
LindyAbbott

@cyclebreaker @LindyAbbott @thewholetruth  you could not have stated everything I feel in my heart better. People do not understand and there is no where for survivors of abuse to turn when they are not abusing their children, substances or other vices. We walk around severely wounded but our wounds are not seen. My hope is as the wounds of the VETS with ptsd are being recognized that the survivor of abuses needs will be taken more seriously. Thank you for writing. It encourages me that I can still write about this topic to get attention to it and get moms after me help. It was not there in my motherhood time but maybe one day it will be there for others.