By studying both rats and humans, a team of biologists from Montreal, Canada and Singapore has uncovered a link between abuse and neglect in early life and epigenetic changes in how the brain regulates stress. Translated literally, "epigenetic" means "on top of genetics." Epigenetic changes do not alter the code of an individual's DNA, but rather add a molecule to the surface of the code. Such modifications affect the way in which the DNA's instructions are carried out in the body.
In this study, the researchers found that victims of abuse and neglect during childhood had epigenetic modifications on a stress-regulating gene that acts in the brain. The modifications left these subjects less able to quiet their body's natural reactions to stressful situations. The finding helps clarify the physical and mental impacts of childhood trauma and could pave the way for new mental health treatments. The research was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.