McGowan, P.A. et al. (2009)
Epigenetic Regulation of the Glucocorticoid Receptor in Human Brain Associates with Childhood Abuse
Nature Neuroscience 12(3): 241-243

  • Many studies have found that people who experienced severe trauma in childhood are at increased risk of developing mental illness or even committing suicide later in life.
  • Stress responses in humans and other mammals are regulated by the secretion of hormones, particularly cortisol (which is known as the “stress hormone”); a protein that inhibits cortisol release is one of those involved in the control of this system.
  • Levels of this protein were measured in the brains of suicide victims and people of similar ages who had died in accidents. About half the suicide victims were known to have suffered from severe neglect or abuse in childhood.
  • The suicide victims who had also suffered from abuse in childhood were the only group found to have reduced levels of this protein in their brain tissue.
  • Small chemical changes in a region of DNA next to the gene coding for this protein were also observed in the brain tissue of the abused suicide victims; these changes block the production of that protein.
  • This suggests that severe trauma in childhood can cause long-term changes to DNA that lead to changes in the stress response that can make the victim more vulnerable to stress in later life.