Parents’ abusive behaviour can change children’s genes: researchers

Parents’ abusive behaviour can change children’s genes: researchers

It has been long known that domestic violence and child abuse to children, even infants, can lead to permanent alteration of the brain.

Non-genetic family factors, including a history of abuse or neglect during childhood, are risk factors for suicidal behavior: see here, and here. Child abuse and neglect involving children is associated with an increased risk for psychiatric conditions: see here and here and changes in brain development: see here. For a summary, click here.

Now researchers in the United States working with rats have concluded that through a complex process called methylation of the brain, those who are abused or severly stressed as infants can not only have their brains altered by the abuse and stress, but pass on the damaged genes to their offspring.

The research, published in Biological Psychiatry, led by Tania Roth, used 14 rat pups for their first experiment. Half were exposed to a stressed, abusive mother for 30 minutes daily during the first postnatal week, and the other half to a positive caregiving mother during the first postnatal week. The first group was roughly handled or actively rejected by their mothers, whereas the second group was licked, nursed, carried around, or otherwise positively handled.

After the rat pups became adults, the researchers conducted postmortem examinations to see whether there were any differences between the brains of the maltreated rats and the brains of the control rats as far as the expression of a brain-derived gene was concerned. This gene makes a protein that stimulates nerve development in the brain, and it seems to be involved in a number of mental illnesses.

The researchers found changes in the methylation of the gene and in turn changes in the gene expression in the brain of the maltreated animals but not in the control animals.

The researchers then focused on five of the female rats that had been maltreated as infants and looked to see whether they maltreated their own offspring. They did. The researchers also discovered that these offspring had the same gene methylation in the brain that their mothers had had. The alteration of the offspring’s behaviour to that of abusers may have been both genetic and learned behaviours.

“Our results highlight a molecular mechanism that helps explain the far-reaching effects of child abuse and neglect on brain function and behavior,” Roth told Psychiatric News. “This offers a possible explanation for why adolescents and adults who were maltreated as children have higher rates of behavioral problems, substance abuse, and mental illnesses. Furthermore, [the results] give us a framework to help explain why children who have experienced abuse often become abusers themselves.”

Things to Read, Watch & Listen

Anne-Marie Hutchinson Memorial Lecture

I have been given the great honour today of talking about my friend and colleague, the late Anne-Marie Hutchinson, OBE QC (Hons). Speaking at the tail end of this meeting, I have to keep this interesting! I am not going to talk at first about Anne-Marie, but two other inspirational women in my first law… Read More »Anne-Marie Hutchinson Memorial Lecture

Embracing Wellness in Your Daily Routine for Fertility

American guest author Ashley Taylor has written an interest article about having a holistic approach to maintaining your health and addressing fertility issues: In the journey toward maintaining your health and addressing fertility issues, embracing a holistic approach is key. Wellness is more than just a goal; it’s a sustainable lifestyle that intertwines various aspects… Read More »Embracing Wellness in Your Daily Routine for Fertility

Consultation open: Queensland Assisted reproductive technology industry

The Regulation of Assisted Reproductive Technology Services Consultation Paper is now available and open for feedback until 25 February 2024. This follows the Minister for Health, Mental Health and Ambulance Services and Minister for Women’s commitment to regulate the assisted reproductive technology (ART) industry in Queensland by 2024. The paper is designed to help inform considerations for regulating… Read More »Consultation open: Queensland Assisted reproductive technology industry

Family Law Section Law Council of Australia Award
Member of Queensland law society
Family law Practitioners Association
International Academy of Family Lawyers - IAFL
Mediator Standards Board