The epigenome influences gene expression levels in response to the physical, social, and emotional environment without altering the DNA sequence. Numerous studies in adults have found that traumatic and adverse childhood experiences are associated with epigenetic changes in the FKBP5 gene, an important regulator of the stress response.
This study is the first to detect epigenetic changes in the FKBP5 gene at diagnosis in abuse cases, regardless of injury severity, socioeconomic status, or psychosocial risk factors.
“Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. Unsafe stress is associated with adverse health outcomes in adulthood, and survivors of childhood abuse experience higher rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, as well as mental health problems.”
More than 650,000 children are abused in the United States each year.
The study included 82 acutely injured children under 4 years of age. The expert panel classified the injuries as abusive, accidental, or unspecified. Cheek swabs and blood samples were collected to measure DNA methylation of the FKBP5 gene (a chemical change that regulates gene activity).
Dr. Pierce and colleagues found that children with abusive injuries had less methylation of the FKBP5 gene promoter region, which is normally associated with increased gene expression.
How to prevent epigenetic changes in the stress system?
“The stress gene dysregulation we observed at diagnosis suggests that the biological response to abuse begins very early,” Dr. Pierce said. “However, it is possible that early interventions can reverse epigenetic changes in the stress system. More research is needed to confirm our findings and potentially identify the epigenetic signature to see if interventions work.”