23 February 2009

Altered Stress Genes, Childhood Trauma and Poverty

A study confirms what common sense should have been telling us all along, that early childhood abuse affects the expression of stress-related genes. It also validates work done by WISE in 2005 on poverty and its unexpected conclusion.

The team of scientists found early child abuse changed the expression of a gene that is important for responding to stress.

If children are abused early, they are flooded with stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, said Louise Newman, a professor of perinatal and infant psychiatry at the University of Newcastle in Australia.

"This impacts directly on how the brain develops and the stress regulation mechanism. It becomes highly stressed so it's like setting the thermostat on high, setting up a system which regulates stress less efficiently," Newman said. "Also it impacts on the area which controls feelings, so they're more likely to be highly stressed, have difficulties with anger and emotions, and be prone to self-harm, anxiety, suicide and depression."

In 2005, WISE encouraged 21 low-income women to tell their personal stories of living in poverty, and to begin their accounts at any point they chose. With a single exception, the women began their stories with their childhood.

After all the stories were completed and compiled, the storytellers uncovered two major long-term predictors of, or early forecasts for their future poverty.

The #1 predictor of future poverty was overwhelmingly an event, more often a course of events, that traumatized us during childhood. The events mentioned in the greatest number of our stories were abuse, neglect, or exploitation by a guardian or family member. Fourteen of us report having had experiences of this sort. In several cases of abuse, other family members or the community knew about it and did nothing, which increased our isolation....

Combine the study done by the 21 women of WISE with the report that childhood abuse can cause permanent changes to gene expression. The "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" crowd has a problem.

The bootstraps (genes) of some people living in poverty have been seriously deformed due to childhood experience. To tell such people to "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" is equivalent to telling them to "walk on your broken leg to heal it."

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