BLOOMING GLEN, Pennsylvania — Worldwide, over 150 million children have experienced abuse. Another 218 million children are forced into child labor, and two million have been forced into prostitution or pornography.
New research suggests that this kind of stress in a child’s life not only causes negative mental and emotional effects, but also changes how genes are activated.
The children most at risk for abuse live in African countries. A study surveying 28 developing and transitional countries found that developing countries, particularly in Africa, had higher rates of child abuse.
The most important factor was parents’ opinion toward corporal punishment. Gender, geography and economic status also play a role. Males from urban areas are the most common targets, particularly when they are younger.
Poorer children are also more likely to be abused. A report by the U.S. Government for Congress pointed to economic status as the best indicator of a child’s vulnerability to abuse.
The Oxford survey found that rates of both physical and psychological abuse were higher in Africa.
This abuse affects genes and could have lasting effects on how these children respond to the world. Abusive parenting causes early stress, which changes gene expression.
Previous studies have shown that abused children are prone to mood, anxiety and aggressive disorders. They have greater difficulty regulating their emotions than children who have not been abused.
Children also have added health problems, including weakened immune systems. They are more at risk of cardiac disease and cancer. Their school performance suffers as well.
All of these factors make it difficult for abused children to enter the workforce and respond well in social settings.
Previous studies were unable to pinpoint what was most to blame; psychological damage or genetic damage.
A study performed by the University of Wisconsin, Madison, looked at DNA methylation in the blood of 56 children. Methylation is a biochemical process that helps cells turn genes on or off. In roughly half of participating children who had been abused, the presentation of NR3C1—the glucocorticoid receptor gene—was affected.
There was no difference in the genes children were born with; the parents’ marital statuses, income and education were all controlled.
Abused children had greater methylation of NR3C1. These children cannot control their emotions, deal with stress or fight off disease because of this.
In previous studies performed on rodents, researchers found that this gene change affected cortisol levels. Cortisol is helpful in moderation, regulating alertness, but too much leads to less emotional control.
When the sites that start the production of glucocorticoid receptors are methylated, fewer receptors are produced to control cortisol levels.
These specifics are unethical to test on children, as it would involve looking at living brain tissue, but there are parallels in the research. In rodents, these genetic changes were reversible, so more research may prove the same to be true in humans.
Right now, most of the focus is on preventing child abuse, as opposed to treating victims.
There are education programs in schools, although these are often less effective in developing countries as there is lower rate of enrollment in schools. An alternative is family support by visiting homes and speaking to parents. This has also been shown to be a less effective option.
UN Women has recently started a SAFE program to teach children about their rights and how to seek help. The program has children play games and sing about their rights to their bodies.
With this new research, it may be possible to reach out to a broad community of children who have already been abused. Abuse affects children well into their adult lives, but new data could lessen these effects.
– Monica Roth