The study’s author, Divya Mehta of Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, studied 169 patient’s blood cells. Most of the participants, from Atlanta, were in their late 30s to mid-40s, were African American, and while some had been subjected to child abuse, all participants had experienced at least 2 seriously traumatic events. Those traumatic events ranged from rape, being in a serious car accident, and being held at knife, or gun, point. On average, those involved had experienced 7 major traumas. Despite this the majority were resilient, with 108 never developing PTSD.
The PTSD Participants
61 of the participants developed PTSD, and of those 32 had been subjected to child abuse, while 29 were not. Their blood cells were examined to determine whether there were genetic changes that could distinguish between those who had been abused as children, compared to those who had not. They had to identify differences aside from the resilient group, as the changes were associated with the PTSD as opposed to the exposure to trauma.
The alterations in genes are known as epigenetic changes. These are chemical differences that affect how the genes, but do not mutate the DNA. The changes can silence or active genes, which influence the risk of certain diseases, and brain development. Some of these changes aren’t permanent, but others can last a lifetime, and in some cases, will be passed on.
The study found that in child abuse PTSD cases they experienced 12 times the level of epigenetic changes. For those who experienced the trauma later in their lives the genetic changes were short-term.
The Treatment Difference
Additionally, a study from King’s College of London’s Institute of Psychiatry, those with a childhood history of abuse have shown that their mental health issues are less responsive to some therapies, including antidepressants.
So, while there may be standard methods to treat PTSD, these may not be effective in dealing with PTSD that is a result of childhood abuse. This presents mental health professionals with a unique challenge, as treating psychiatric disease in child abuse victims is different than treating other patients.
The traumatic events that led to the disease is equally as important as the disease is itself. The deeper we understand the traumatic event and how it is harming the patient, the better positioned we are to reverse the damage, or at least effectively manage it.
If this trauma in childhood has left permanent damage, it’s vital that we understand how it can be dealt with as it is passed on to the next generation.