Abuse and neglect of children causes epigenetic changes in child’s DNA.

Epigenetics is defined as the changes in gene expression in response to the environment. That environment includes child abuse and neglect. A new study from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, published in the Child Development journal, illustrates the impact of abusive and neglectful parenting to changes in the glucocorticoid receptor gene.

This particular gene is responsible for social functioning and health. The researchers examined the DNA methylation activity in 56 children aged 11-14. Fifty percent of the children had been physically abused. The findings of this study reveal that maltreated children had increased methylation on several sites of the glucocorticoid receptor gene, also known as NR3C1.  The changes occurred on the section of the gene that is critical for nerve growth factor which is an important part of healthy brain development.The gene also affects the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in rodents. Disruptions of this system in the brain would make it difficult for people to regulate their emotional behavior and stress levels. The immune system is also affected, leaving individuals less able to fight off germs and more vulnerable to illnesses.

 “This link between early life stress and changes in genes may uncover how early childhood experiences get under the skin and confer lifelong risk,” said Seth D. Pollak, professor of psychology and pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who directed the study.

“Our finding that children who were physically maltreated display a specific change to the glucocorticoid receptor gene could explain why abused children have more emotional difficulties as they age,” said to Pollak. “They may have fewer glucocorticoid receptors in their brains, which would impair the brain’s stress-response system and result in problems regulating stress.”


Sarah E. Romens, Jennifer McDonald, John Svaren, Seth D. Pollak. Associations Between Early Life Stress and Gene Methylation in Children. Child Development, 2014; DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12270



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