A number of recent research shows that the neurobiological alterations resulting from child abuse, not only increase the risk of suffering from mental disorders in adulthood but also increase the chances of suffering from future organic disorders, As well as changes in behavior.
Child abuse, domestic violence and childhood abandonment are possible traumatic events for any child and are much more common than you might thinka. According to the Children’s Mental Health Center at University College London, between 4 and 16 percent of children in western industrialized countries suffer from physical abuse each year and 1 in 10 suffer from extreme mental neglect or overload.
As for sexual abuse during childhood, between 5 and 10 percent of girls and 5 percent of boys have already suffered from it throughout his childhood.
Adverse childhood experiences
I divided the following study into different phases, because although it started during the period 1995-1997, the analyzes of the data continued for several years, obtaining a large number of results.
Phase 1 – Beginning
The study is generally abbreviated as AS (For its acronym in English).
The investigation began in 1995 in San Diego, with the participation of 17,000 subjectss which have been submitted to regular medical examinations. They were also asked to report in detail on the type of traumatic experiences they may have had during childhood (violence, abuse, abandonment) and to what extent.
Phase 2 – First results
In 1998, the researcher Vincent felitti, Who belonged to the preventive medicine department of the Kaiser Permanent medical group, came to the following conclusions by analyzing the data obtained by the ACE study with his team.
according to a survey used during the study, subjects who answered yes to more than three questions on child abuse and abandonment had up to 12 times more likely suffer alcoholism, drug addiction or develop depression, compared to people who have not experienced these events (and who therefore responded negatively to the survey).
The increase of: suffering from smoking and obesity; exercise less and have sporadic sex.
Phase 3 – Analysis of variables
After the previous results, the year 2003 the researchers decided to check the results on the increase in the occurrence of cardiovascular illnesses coronary arteries (as a result of abuse and neglect) as follows.
They analyzed how this type of disease increased in three different ways:
- Taking all the variables, the risk of suffering from coronary heart disease is 3.6 times higher than in the population without childhood trauma. These variables include individual characteristics (gender, age, physical activity and eating habits), psychological problems (depression and frustration) and, of course, whether they have suffered. some childhood trauma.
- Taking the varying groups of psychological problems and childhood trauma, the risk increased 3.1 times.
- Taking only the childhood trauma variables, the possibility was 2.6 times greater.
That is, what increases the most the possibility of coronary heart diseases it is not about gender, whether you have depression, eating habits, physical activity, or any of these variables, but the childhood trauma.
Phase 4 – Latest results
Finally, in 2004, other subsequent evaluations of the same results revealed that those who had experienced such abuse in childhood and youth presented themselves more frequently. coronary disease, And more precisely: the more serious the traumas of childhood, the greater the risk of suffering from cardiovascular, pulmonary, cancerous, hepatic (blood-related diseases) and autoimmune diseases.
Brief Biological Explanation of the Effects of Child Abuse
the childhood trauma they modify the biological mechanisms of the organism. Stress hormones and certain neurotransmitters influence the creation of long-term imprints in a child’s brain.
These alterations are particularly evident in the communication between hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal cortex.
- In a stressful situation, the hypothalamus secretes a hormone called corticotropin (CRH) which stimulates the pituitary gland.
- The pituitary gland then releases another hormone into the bloodstream called adrenocorticotropic (ACTH).
- Finally, the adrenal cortex (Located above the kidneys) receives ACTH, and it responds by releasing cortisol (stress hormone).
Emotional abuse, abandonment and multiple sclerosis
A study conducted at the Eppendorf University Clinic in Hamburg, led by researcher Carsten Spitzer, obtained the following surprising results.
He selected a total of 234 patients with multiple sclerosis and 885 healthy people. All were to report on their childhood experiences. What was achieved was that emotional abuse and abandonment were the twice as common in people with multiple sclerosis, Compared to the healthy group.
A moral quartet, metabolic syndrome and childhood trauma
This syndrome includes four factors:
- Abdominal fat
- Alterations in glucose metabolism
- Blood lipid alterations
- arterial hypertension
One of the keys to this syndrome is that the appearance of one of these factors, improves the appearance of others.
Well, several studies have confirmed that these 4 components belong to the metabolic syndrome they can appear as a result of traumatic experiences during childhood, Of which, the most marked is that of the abdominal adiposity.
The latter was corroborated by a study entitled NESDA (For its acronym in English) and carried out in 2012, in the Netherlands on depression and anxiety. They found there a relation between childhood sexual abuse and excess fat in the abdomen.
Child abuse and psychosis in adulthood
First, we define what abuse is. According to the World Health Organization:
“Child abuse is defined as the abuse and neglect of children under the age of 18, and includes all types of physical or psychological abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, neglect and commercial or commercial exploitation. other that cause or may harm health and development. or the dignity of the child, or endanger its survival, in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power. Exposure to partner violence is also included. sometimes between forms of child abuse. “
Given the neurological immaturity of the brain during the first years of life, it is well known that it is more sensitive to events and experiences. This sensitivity offers the advantage of learning at high speed, but can also lead to great dangers:
Childhood violence and psychotic symptoms
According to a study by the University of Barcelona, she analyzed the relationship between child abuse and the development of psychotic symptoms. The first thing they discovered was that even though there hadto people who, despite child abuse, were able to overcome and lead a mentally healthy life.
Subsequently, the results highlighted that these individual differences reside in the brain-derived neurotrophic factor gene (proteins responsible for the survival of neurons) called BDNF. Apparently this gene promotes the growth, differentiation and survival of neurons during times of stress.
This study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, explains how exposure to severe child abuse (sexual, physical and / or emotional) is associated with an increased likelihood of experiencing psychotic symptoms in life. Additionally, and this is where the BDNF gene comes in, subjects with certain alleles for that gene were more vulnerable to this type of abuse, compared to those with another variable (the former had an allele called Met and the second Val).
If you do not understand the latter very well, think that for blood there are 3 alleles: A, B and O, and from the combination of these different blood groups are obtained.
There are a number of genes that increase the chances of suffering long-term organ problems if you’ve had traumatic experiences.
According to some studies, one of these genes appears to be the FKBP5 gene. This gene encodes a protein (along with others) that affects the sensitivity of tissues and organs that respond to cortisol (commonly known as a “stress hormone”).
Based on the results, it was found that some variants of FKBP5 increase the risksor depression (Multiply by 8 for any of these variations) and post-traumatic stress disorder, for those who suffered from childhood abuse.
In addition, these same data also indicate that some of the variants of this same gene are also linked to organic disorders. But that remains to be confirmed.
What is really striking about this type of gene is the importance it can have for the appearance of various disorders, but only if there has been a environmental trigger, Which in this case is child abuse. In other words, if a person has not experienced traumatic and stressful events during their childhoodHaving these genes will not increase the chances of suffering from these disorders.
Child abuse and its influence on epigenetic changes
This is known as epigenetic changes:
These changes are appendages that adhere to DNA influencing how often a particular gene is read. In other words, that is to say although a person’s genetic code does not change, how they work.
I recommend this one little documentary on the relatively new area of epigenetic.
- Burden and consequences of child abuse in high income countries. R. Gilbert et al. as The Lancet, vol. 373, p. 68-71, 2009.
- Moderation of adult depression due to polymorphism of the FKB5 gene and physical abuse of children in the general population ”. K. Appel et al. as Neuropsychopharmacology, vol. 36, p. 1982-1991, 2011.
- Child abuse and BDNF-Val66Met polymorphism: evidence for gene-environment interaction from the development of psychosis-like experiences in adults. S. Alemany et al. ca The British Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 199, n ° 1, p. 38-42, 2011