The Consequences of Childhood Trauma Can Last for a Lifetime

Irish Independent
March 2, 2009

The National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church published its most recent guidelines recently. These were launched on the same day that a former garda was convicted for re-offending when he tried to procure children as young as five or six for sexual abuse.

There is good reason to feel horrified by such crimes. Not only is innocence violated, but the victim's life may be blighted forever. Similar effects have been found in those who were physically abused or neglected.

Of course not everybody has the misfortune to suffer these adverse consequences, but for those who do, they can be devastating. There is also a risk of suicide and these childhood traumas have been shown to be a high predictor of crime, delinquency and disorganised attachment in later life.

According to studies in the US, about one in 50 children suffer abuse at some point, while in Ireland, figures published in the SAVI (Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland) report show that one in five women and one in six men have been victims of contact sexual abuse in childhood. Similar figures have been reported from Britain.

While mental-health professionals have long been aware of the long-term effects of various forms of abuse, what was less clear was how these occurred. There was a belief that these were psychological but without specifying more clearly what these entailed.

Now, a team led by Prof Michael Meaney, of McGill University in Canada, has just published a paper in Nature Neuroscience which considerably assists us in understanding more fully these effects and just how profoundly they run, extending into the field of genetics.

Meaney's team analysed the brains of 24 male suicide victims -- 12 of whom had been abused in childhood and 12 who had not -- and he compared these to 12 who had died accidentally.

His team found that the abused subjects had stunted activity in the stress response. There is, within the body, a biological mechanism for dealing with stress. This involves two parts of the brain, known as the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, and one external organ, the adrenal gland, which rests on top of the kidneys.

These become active and feed into one another when we are subject to stress. The pathway (known as the HPA pathway) between the three organs is kept in check by a gene, known as the glucicorticoid receptor gene. It is this gene which Meaney's team has found to be adversely affected. As a result of this deficiency the HPA pathway becomes overactive, as if the person was in a constant state of stress, so making it more difficult to deal with stressful events in a measured and judicious manner.

What this all means is that childhood trauma, be it sexual, physical or neglectful, can have a lasting impact on the biological underpinnings of the stress response and that this transcends the merely psychological.

Indeed, we often think of psychological reactions as temporary and ephemeral, yet this study demonstrates that these emotional manifestations of our experiences are driven by the indelible imprint that has been left, making them difficult to heal.

In everyday language we often speak of somebody being "scarred for life". And this indeed seems an appropriate term knowing what we now do about the impact of major traumatic incidents in childhood. They cause a scarring to the genes that assist in the stress response, manifesting emotionally with depression, anxiety and even suicide.

This study has opened a window that was heretofore firmly shut. And in letting in the light of knowledge it will help us more fully to appreciate the importance of nurturing and protecting our children because their lives may depend on it.


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