Franklin James Cook

Childhood Abuse Can Alter the Brain and Increase Suicide Risk

In Research on February 26, 2009 at 6:29 am

ORIGINAL REPORT — According to a Canadian Press report, research shows that “childhood trauma can alter the way genes in the brain work, potentially putting an individual at increased risk for suicide later in life.”

A team of scientists from McGill University analyzed brain tissue from 12 suicide victims who had been abused as children and compared them to the tissue of 12 suicide victims who had not been traumatized and 12 people who died from other causes. They found that the brain tissue from the abused group showed “epigenetic” changes that affect a person’s response to stress, which is known to increase the risk of suicide.

An article about the study is published in the current issue of Nature Neuroscience (see an abstract of the article). In the Canadian Press report, the scientists who completed the research say that “identifying epigenetic changes in abuse victims could one day pave the way for drugs that would reverse the damage.”

“The implications at this stage are you want to identify these people and then probably offer them some sort of intervention,” said [Moshe] Szyf, an epigeneticist in McGill’s department of pharmacology and therapeutics.

Any practical application of the study’s findings is not likely to be available anytime soon, for “researchers would have to find similar epigenetic makings in the DNA of a person’s blood, since brain tissue can only be analyzed after death” and then researchers would have to “find drugs that could reverse the epigenetic changes,” which are both steps not yet accomplished.

Dr. John Strauss, a child psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, said the McGill study is important because it brings to “psychiatric disorders a way of explaining potential gene-environment interactions.”

The difficulty is translating the method into subjects that are living, he said. “Obviously, if there were some kind of marker that you could check in individuals to see if they are more at risk (for suicide), it might aid identification.”

The findings are also an example of how basic research on brain function might lead to medical or other interventions that would prevent suicide, specifically in the emerging field of epigenetics. For more about epigenitics, see the Public Broadcasting Service feature on Nova or Science magazine’s web page on the topic.

Szyf said the optimistic message from the [McGill] study is that changes in the function of genes transformed by environmental factors are potentially reversible.

“I think what’s nice about the study is we can see marks of early life in the genes of older people,” he said. “And that illustrates the power of epigenetics because it serves as a memory of environmental exposure.”

For instance, it’s known that toxic chemicals like lead, mercury and PCBs can alter the function of a person’s genes and result in disease, including some cancers. “But it seems that social exposures are as toxic and can cause exactly the same kind of changes,” Szyf said. “And we should be aware of the impact a bad social environment can have on our health.”

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