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

90 comments
Pollen
Pollen

Lets just note that you can be a victim of rape as a child too and classifying rape as adult-onset trauma is not accurate.

BradSoverty
BradSoverty

Aw, this was a very good post. Taking the time and actual effort to make a superb article… but what can I say… I put things off a lot and never seem to get anything done.

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SeanWyatt
SeanWyatt

I remember waking up to my father telling me if I scream he would kill me. I remember him standing in the doorway of my room, I'm pretending to sleep, till he goes away.. My step mother would often go out of the house when my dad would start drinking, he often beat her when she remained in the house during the sexual abuse he gave me and my 3 other brothers. 


I'm 49 now, with 2 loving kids, and a great wife of 16 years, I still hear the screams...i secretly have a fantasy of  trying to kill myself for 10 plus years...I have seen many doctors, and been on many medications, all with the same results...Now in 2015, I have no contact with any of my family, everyone that has ever met me, knows of the abuse that my father did, though I can't prove any of it, and thats the worst part

1985AngelBaby
1985AngelBaby

I was adopted at age 5 and grew up straight away due to emotional,verbal,psychological, and physical abuse. When I finally got the courage to move out at age 18 I had a complete immune system crash and have now had fibromyagia and chronic fatigue syndrome for over 12 years. I have also been diagnosed with PTSD that majorly contributes to my horrid migraines. It's definitely an internal struggle.....

hidingplaces
hidingplaces

I was placed in 19 living environments before age 4. My childhood days were riddled with physical and mental abuse, abandonment, a possible spurious kidnap; the list goes on.  I seemed to always have the ability to superimpose myself into being a pirate princess where my curious mind and imagination helped me help other children living within the same accomodations - some older tham me - note - I did this as a very young little girl.  Everyone who met me (and even today) think  I am the most "put together" and happy person they know. I light up the room!  I thought, as an adult, I had my psych together dispite the traumatic childhood.  I was wrong. I had somehow functioned as an adult.Maybe life was just too busy to sort of the real me while working and raising three sons; not to mention several failed marriages.  It wasn't until my divorce 4 years ago that I realized that this event took me to the drones of lethargy.  My personality started to puzzle me and I could no longer figure myself out. The divorce was the trigger - not the full impact of my inability to function on the higher levels I was accustomed. I asked myself; "How could my divorce trigger a self distructive lifestyle, when I survived horrific situations as a child?"


The scientific approach is very interesting to me because, like most of us, we want to mentally think we are smart enough to process and fix what we "think" we understand but understanding doesn't cure what is happening to us. AND we are the smart ones for seeking understanding and resolutions that provide a better and healthier future for us, and possibly for the genetic understanding of our siblings and our children.  Most of us feel that we have a certain understanding of the "book answers;" yet to consistently apply the knowledge and teachings can be difficult.  I wrote a book about my childhood - this did not seem to trigger the depression. In fact, I felt somewhat emancipated.  It was not until I was abandoned by my husband, a psychiatrist, and the first person who I fully trusted with every feeling I embodied.  Of course at the time I thought he would never, ever think of hurting me, especially knowing my past - and admitting to me how functional I was and so well adaptive and loving.  It took him walking out of my life for a woman 20 years his junior to jolt my total past into the present.  Hiding Places, A Memoir from the Pirate Princess of Tybee Island - couragious little girl - heartfelt book filled with challenges and enchantment.  Now, my challenges are far more difficult - perhaps because I am now 65 and ALL the feelings of abandonment seem more real because I am alone; whereas, as a child I never felt alone - my imagination and bicycle capers kept my spirit alive - and I knew life was going to be better when I grew up - I just had to be patient.


Our challenge now, as we migrate through life with our various "syndromes" is: Each of us must tell our story without fear or shame.  Each of us who tell our story gives hope and provides courage another person to share their story.  Together we are forever bound, and together we become stronger and stronger.  Sweetly, Deborah Elizabeth

DanielBell
DanielBell

This sounds very interesting, as a new area of science.  As a surviver, I always thought this to be true, but I did not imagine it.

CelesteEvermore
CelesteEvermore

I would like to know if this is whats wrong with me? What I read is resonating with me. I've had so much trauma in my life. It all started when I was 4, and now I'm 54. Life has been rocky on many levels. Is there any research being done in the Ohio area??? Or is there some hospital or unit where I could talk to someone??

Thank you for your time. 

breakingthecycle
breakingthecycle

I'm in awe of how you have all said things that I been saying and yes no one understands. I'm new to the PTSD Diagnosis. Although I have had it for a very long time as a child of war. I would have to say that there is some significance to the 2nd generation PTSD with genetics. I have racked my Brian for years with my two boys how they could have the same brain developmental issues I have. There not severe but we are not functional in large group education settings and some other minor things I have noticed. They have been tested for all the above and do not have ADD, ADHD, Behavioral disabilities, and no learning disabilities. There's no name for it that I am aware of. I would like to read more on this. Very interesting as I research my diagnosis that has done nothing but turn my self upside down the last six months. It's nice to know I am not alone. Please keep sharing. It helps.

Thank you

breakingthecycle
breakingthecycle

This is my second post about my condition. Feel like I need more information like this article.

roell29
roell29

It's not so much how much trauma a child experienced but the environment in which they experienced it - in particular, whether or not at least one sympathetic witness was available to the child. Without that, the situation is far more dire - with it, children can recover from just about anything. Without someone there who can in some way relate to the child that they are being mistreated, they internalize the abuse and it forms a far more substantial part of their self-image.

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



chelseak
chelseak

@alivebygrace I just started having flashbacks a year ago. Like you said, love and understanding is what I need more than anything else, but I struggle to find it. If you have any advice or links to any helpful sites I would really appreciate it. I have found very little information on this topic, its all pretty basic. I find a lot about victims of childhood abuse, but not a whole lot on the actual ptsd aspect. I think its a completely different experience for those who remember the abuse from the time it happens versus blocking it out for most of your life and slowing having traumatic flashbacks of what happened. 

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. 

GailJacobsonMcNamee
GailJacobsonMcNamee

@buzzreview yes they should be charged with a crime. The kindest thing my parents could have done for  was to put me up for adoption as a baby re a therapist years ago.

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.

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.

GnomeofDoom
GnomeofDoom

I would suggest EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing). It's extremely simple, and highly effective. The best part is, you don't have to talk anywhere near as much as with traditional counselling. It's changed my life. Just make sure you find a psychologist/psychiatrist who is trained and skilled in EMDR. It's very powerful stuff.

Chrysolis
Chrysolis

@GnomeofDoom  Hi GnomeofDoom <3 and everyone else. EMDR and also Tapping.  Also Dialectical Behavior Therapy.  Good Stuff!!! 


Please keep seeking the light....with lots of love~

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.

BeverleyStar
BeverleyStar

@synchromorph Hang in.  Care enough about yourself to have the courage to heal. if you are on FB see Dr. Sara Joy David, R.Psych.0786, Emotional Wellness for a resource person who cares and shares. I do not know you except from this post.  I care that you and others who have been wounded recover and find peace and joy.

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

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

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.

t16913134
t16913134

@lorrgeno  I understand you totally. Feel exactly the same. I think I stopped growing emotionally too. I realised that wasnt good for the people around me. I also have a good sense of humour- I think its a coping skill ! I also feel utterly cheated out of a good life by a psychotic father. My parents cut of contact with me at the age of 45 for nothing. They are now, 5 years later dead. I was told theydied 3 months after, and never invited to the funeral. 

I know the terrible hurt. But I know what mine is now. And it helps me to know someone else has the same experience. I think reading about other suffers is the best way to come to terms with my own suffering. Its knowing Im not alone and knowing someone understands me.

PhantomScribbler
PhantomScribbler

@lorrgeno I feel for you, and I understand. I was sexually abused as a child and then verbally and emotionally abused by my mother who always told me I would never 'get a man' unless I flaunted my sexuality the way she did. I'm also the biggest nerd ever. (bIpIv'a' fellow nerds?) In my 20s and still alone, I finally took her advice and wound up with a man who also abused me physically, sexually, emotionally and spiritually. In trying to be intentional about not being like my mother, I always took my faith seriously and he threw 'God hates divorce' and 'the man is the head of the woman' at me over and over to keep me in line.


2 weeks after I gave birth to our daughter he groin-kicked me, and he gave me a concussion on another occasion, but his favorite move was choking me. But when my daughter was 3 I caught him online looking at kids and I took our daughter and left. I wasn't going to let happen to her what had happened to me. Eventually the courts agreed with me and he was only allowed supervised visitation, which he's never been willing to pay for so he hasn't seen her (or spoken with her or sent her anything or paid child support) since she was 4.


The chilling part is I had not told her anything much about him at all, yet the first time she got really mad at me for grounding her for BEING the bully on the playground she went to choke me. She wasn't strong enough to do any physical damage, but damn. My mother has also insinuated herself into our lives and turned her against me many times, and my daughter has tried to go for my throat on 2 other occasions. Now she's 17 and I had to have her arrested this last time she attacked me and bloodied up my face (because I grounded her after finding out she shared nude photos of herself online). I have sacrificed everything to protect her and I wound up being her punching bag, so my abuse continues.


Here is my point though, I still love her and do my best to do right by her because, like I tell her all the time, everything you DO in life is a choice. What gets handed to you isn't your choice, your feelings aren't even usually your choice, as to this day I deal with depression and OCD fears of germs, bugs, crowds, etc. But how you interact with people is always a choice, as is forgiveness. And the forgiveness isn't for them, it's for you. Even though she's gone, try to forgive your mother, not because she deserves it (she doesn't) but because YOU deserve the release of the anger. And I'll warn you right now, you will have to forgive over and over because the pain will come back, but it will help to release it, even if it's only temporary. I still have hope that my daughter will come to a place where she can turn herself around and be a good person. I long for the day I can have some version of a normal mother-daughter relationship with her and I have to forgive her daily to even open that possibility.


I say this all and tell you, no, I haven't healed, but because I intentionally choose to forgive, I do have some good days where I feel free, in spite of how my daughter and mother still treat me. Forgiveness is a choice, love is a choice, and you can give it to people even when they don't deserve it, and sometimes, if they are still taking air, it will eventually change them. That is what we can hope for, and that is what we MUST pray for, knowing that God will eventually make everything right, even if that doesn't happen until after we shed our mortal coil, and those who abused us will either be changed and go into eternity thanking not just Him, but humbly thanking us for our perseverance in the face of what they did to us, or that they won't be with us at all to hurt us any more. Until then, we are left on this Earth not because God wants us to continue suffering, but because He's giving us an opportunity to reach out to one another when we see kindred spirits and help each other through this. So don't give in to the suicidal feelings (I get them too, sooo much) because even one more day might be the day YOUR story helps someone else or someone else helps to raise you up.