While it has been known for some time that traumatic events in childhood are generally more damaging than ones experienced later in life, new research suggests that childhood adversity may influence them on a genetic level, leaving them more prone to developing post traumatic stress disorder in adulthood. The study found that the changes in genotypes affected the way their nervous system processes information, making them more likely to process stressful events poorly, leading to trauma.
Conducted jointly between Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the University of Michigan, the authors found an interaction between the ADRB2 gene (linked to the release of epinephrine) and adversity experienced at an early age. The study, published in the online journal JAMA Psychiatry, focused on a test group of 810 National Guard soldiers who took part in the Ohio National Guard Study of Risk and Resilience (three quarters of which had developed symptoms of PTSD from combat-related situations in the past, with the remaining experiencing other traumatic events). The participants were asked about their exposure to instances of physical, sexual or emotional abuse as well as witnessing violence between their parents. The soldiers were also asked about trauma experienced in adulthood, including 33 categories (half for deployment-related events and the other half for non-deployment related events) and evaluated for symptoms of PTSD using a 17-item checklist.
Although past studies have revealed that abnormalities in a person’s nervous system, especially in their fight-or-flight response, are a factor in the development of anxiety disorders like PTSD, a genetic basis had not been found prior to this study. The researchers found that the participants with two or more experiences of childhood trauma (mostly cases of abuse), there was an association between genotype and a predisposition to PTSD symptoms. The results of this study are a step forward in our understanding of the biological mechanisms behind PTSD, paving the way for more accurate treatment and prevention in the future. The results are also applicable to the litany of stress-related illnesses and the treatment of chronic pain, a condition that is also linked to hormones and the ADRB2 gene.
Ethnicity and genetic predisposition
Another study that sought to replicate the findings of the University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the University of Michigan research focused on African-American women (non-military) enrolled in the Grady Trauma Project. They were evaluated for childhood adversity, adult trauma and PTSD using a similar questionnaire as the aforementioned study. The study found them to develop the same variation in gene (referred to as a single nucleotide polymorphism, or SNP), that was prominent in the primarily European American National Guard soldiers from the first study.
“Our findings that the ADRB2 factor might be shared by men and women, African-Americans and European-Americans, and military and civilians is consistent with the idea that some genetic risk factors for PTSD might be common across populations and even shared by other stress-related disorders, such as depression,” said Sandro Galea, M.D., lead author of the study.
The results of these studies do not only pave the way for earlier and more accurate prevention and intervention strategies for patients with post traumatic stress disorder, but lay the groundwork for altering the ADRB2 gene itself once the technology and cost allows it to be a viable option. Quite possibly one day in the future, PTSD will be able to be “cured” with a shot of a genetically altering substance instead of hours spent taking psychotherapy sessions and anti-anxiety medications.
Sovereign Health is devoted to the treatment of anxiety-based disorders, offering a specialized trauma track and PTSD-focused therapies. Recognizing that at best antipsychotics and antidepressants yield mixed results, we employ a litany of psychotherapeutic approaches to address the underlying issues of particular case, incorporating therapeutic activities such as psychoeducational groups and life skills classes to help them better handle trauma in a healthier manner in the future. If you would like more information regarding PTSD or Sovereign Health’s treatment of it, feel free to browse the rest of our site, read patient reviews and call our admissions helpline.
Written by Chase Beckwith, Sovereign Health Group writer