Friday, August 22, 2014


Quick Take:
A recent study found evidence that child abuse, and trauma from abuse, causes actual changes in the body.

I came across some interesting- to- me stuff, and thought it might be interesting -to- other- people too.  So I'm going to write about it as I understand it, given their excessive (IMO) use of ultra big words and fancy terms.

The study focused on epigenetic changes in children who had been abused. "Epigenetic" is when a gene changes in response to something external. So, lets say you put a hot dog in the microwave for too long and it splits (but on the inside where you can't see it, to make the example work). It started as a hot dog and is still a hot dog. It's still made out of beef or whatever, but a part has been changed. The microwave caused an epigenetic change.

When a child is abused, it flips a switch in their bodies and changes their genes.  The switch makes stuff called "methyl group". Methylation can wake up certain genes and put other genes down for a nap. The genes have now been changed, and are activated for cancer, autoimmune disease, mental disorders, and diabetes.

Here is a very readable link for details Abuse Casts a Long Shadow by Changing Children's Genes
The gene that helps manage stress, NR3C1, was altered following traumatic abuse. And guess what NR3C1 affects? Cortisol! And the Adrenal gland! It makes a burst of energy and amps up vigilance while shutting down processes that are not important during the perceived emergency.
So does it seem like kids with RAD are stuck in fight or flight? They are!
Like the kid wakes up already amped and on edge? Yes!
Like once she gets going in a meltdown she can't pull herself out of it and it goes on forever? Totally true!
Research in epigenetics proves children are not resilient (I so totally fucking hate that phrase). They are changed by what happens to them. It also shows why a child who experienced traumatic abuse as a baby for example, has problems from it decades later.
The good news is, this is not bad news! Before the study on children was a study on rats that was essentially the same. When the rats were later paired with nurturing mothers, the gene went back to the way it started. No one has figured out how to reverse the change in a human yet, but there is a huge puzzle piece filled in.
The next time someone says, "you're too hard on her/ too easy on her, have you tried *fill in the blank?*", you can tell them this: "We are trying our best to help her but her NR3C1 gene has been methylated and epigenetically altered, what do you suggest?". 
Epigenetics yo'! This stuff is so cool!


  1. LOVE IT!! My SWer was just telling us this information when we saw her two weeks ago - that early trauma changes the brain at it's deepest levels not just at parts that can be reversed.

    1. I've read that, but it's a little harder for me to grasp. I wish I knew more neurology!

  2. I totally love you for reading the difficult articles with all the big and fancy words and translating it for us. :-)

  3. Just went to a wonderful prsentation "Trauma Doesn't Tell Time" based on this article:

    She went into this also. I've also read that early trauma can actually make changes in the DNA. They did a a study of some little animal (voles?) and traumatized the mother with an association of a certain berry. Several generations late the voles still had the irrational fear of the berry, EVEN WHEN the babies were not raised by their mother - eliminating the possibility of it being learned behavior. This stuff is so darned interesting.

    1. There is a similar study where rats were exposed to a flower smell. 2 generations later they had the same reaction. BUT, even when the dad rat was exposed, prior to conception, the baby rats reacted. It really is interesting, and explains so much!

  4. I'm not so sure... between the hoardes that survive unimaginable trauma (and carry on) and my experience that there is little (and occasionally no) correlation between the amount of trauma an individual endured and their ability to cope with it a non-destructive manner.

    Thanks to lovely, inherited mental illnesses, my mom, my sister and I required extensive pharmaceutical scaffolding (and the occasional in-patient stay) to reach adulthood, despite minimal trauma and pretty great families/childhoods. Non-mentally ill people generally do not land themselves on locked wards at age six (my mom, my sister), nine (me) or when their boyfriend of six weeks dumps them in college (all of us).

    My sister K was a frequent-flyer on the pediatric psych until and most of her fellow patients were kids with mood disorders and/or eating disorders -- little trauma, involved parents, more often than not a perfectly healthy sibling or three.

    In hindsight, it's odd that so few of the frequent-flyers were there for trauma-related reasons. Good insurance? Good insurance + pushy parents, maybe? The fact that rare is the parent willing to "label" a child still in grade school?

    There's now a FASD clinic for kids at a different hospital, so I'd hazard a guess that a lot of the traumatized kids end up there*, but I'm pretty sure it didn't exist when K and were kids. So who knows.

    Admittedly, I really, really like the idea that kids are often super-duper resilient. Because if the Pahiatua Children -- 700+ Polish kids who watched their parents starve to death / be killed by the Nazis, spent several years in a Siberian concentration camp, got shipped to New Zealand and were raised in a giant orphanage can somehow manage to grow up to be productive, law-abiding citizens then anything, absolutely anything, is possible.

    * something like half of foster kids have prenatal alcohol/drug exposure; being in foster care is traumatic

  5. I've been without internet for 3 days! Ack!
    For sure there are kids who are ultimately unscathed by circumstances, like the Polish kids there. Wow, that was horrible! I think my objection to the idea of resilience is it makes it sound as if kids will be just fine, no matter what happens to them. I see a lot of parents saying their kid just needs time, instead of therapy, when the kid is laying on train tracks after a traumatic event.
    Have you ever heard the theory that if there are 2 parents with mild bipolar, they are likely to have a child with severe bipolar. Like, the disorder multiplies instead of maintaining as mild. I read it in The Bipolar Child, which I don't have with me or I'd quote it. Anyway, as you mention your sister has stronger symptoms so I was curious with the genetic component vs epigenetic vs who-knows.
    About 100 years ago I worked on a psych unit and almost every single woman with an eating disorder had been sexually abused. Except, oddly, the most severe case which was an average-tall woman of 56 pounds.
    And then In my *ahem* age range, there was a HUGE thing for putting teenagers in psych wards. Bad grade? A joint? Mouthing off? Boom! More than one of my high school friends had that happen.
    And, you're right, anything is possible! Fascinating and sort-of terrifying at the same time.

    1. Noooo, I’ve hear of the multiplier effect (well, an as-yet unproven theory of a multiplier effect) for autism, but never for a mental illness. It’s hard to say if it holds true for my family, because the boatload of severe mental illness is now (thankfully) somewhat offset by early and aggressive treatment. And it seems to make a really, really big difference – my mom spent more time inpatient as a kid/young woman than K and I did *combined* and my (admittedly still young) girlies have yet have to be for more than three-four days. I chose NOT to forgo meds while pregnant, so it’s possible that helped. Or hurt. Or made no difference. Who knows?

      (Also, steroids can trigger mania, as can… certain antibiotics. Just say no to sulpha drugs. The nice people who work in pharmacies? Who know this? Tell. Your. Freaking. Clients).

      I’m 40 (and my sister is 33), so I think we’re just young enough to have missed the putting-kids-in-psych-wards-for-mild-teenage-rebellion thing. But, well, probably half my college girlfriends fell apart sufficiently to land themselves in for a short spell… as did two of my long-at-the-time-term boyfriends. My dad insists it’s just what ‘smart kids do’, but um, it isn’t. It’s what very highly strung, often well-supported but very-lacking-in-the-well-“give”-that-everybody-else-calls-perspective-as-a-direct-result-of-atypical-brain-chemistry do.

      I’ve never understood the “kid just needs time not therapy” to recover from trauma. If for no other reason than the providing of therapy is unlikely to cause lasting harm vs much-higher-likelihood-of-harm-by-NOT-providing-it. My fascination with resilient kids is mostly because minus the trauma/fallout from MIs in my fam, K and I had a pretty idyllic childhood. Yet, there’s a pretty good chance neither of us would’ve made it to adulthood without a ton of specialized doctors, meds, therapy, etc.

    2. Its actually very promising/encouraging that your family is seeing long term improvements as generations go on!

  6. Cheers, Es. Very interesting!

  7. But…I want them to find that puzzle piece that reverses the damage. ASAP. Please. :>

    1. Seriously!
      Well, they showed with rats that going to a nurturing rat-mother did reverse the damage. The original study was in rats, then duplicated in humans so, there is hope. However, I am not a rat so I make no promises for results.

  8. Love this one. I've so wanted to map O's brain just so I could better understand her and her psychiatrist has considered it as well. However, since she is almost 21 I am afraid if it is too drastic she will see it and give up hope that she is too onward we go without mapping and just working with the symptoms we see!

  9. Hmm, interesting. I haven't thought about brain mapping for a while. I'm going to think about it some now.
    Yeah, at 21 that could be devastating but working with what you can see is pretty much what you would do anyway so either way you're on the right track.


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