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Child abuse damages genes, affects stress coping: study PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Charlie Fidelman   

McGill, Douglas findings on suicide; Landmark research on how lifestyle alters DNA

Montreal researchers have tracked down the biological history or markings of childhood trauma in the brains of Quebec suicide victims.

Published yesterday in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the McGill University and Douglas Institute study is the first of its kind in unravelling the epigenetics of suicide.

Epigenetics looks at the way the environment or lifestyle can alter DNA and shape the way genes function and control behaviour.

"This is not about how you are wired. This is not written in your genes but results from the way you interact with the environment," said Douglas Institute psychiatrist and neuroscientist Gustavo Turecki, who runs the Quebec Suicide Brain Bank.

Colleague Michael Meaney had demonstrated in previous studies the effect on certain genes in rat pups neglected by their mothers. They showed more stress later in life - and also "epigenetic" changes in their brains.

Researchers looked at a sample of 36 brains, all men: 12 suicide victims who were abused, 12 suicides that had no history of abuse, and 12 that died accidentally.

Specifically, researchers looked at the glucocorticoid gene receptor in the hippocampus in the brain.

"For the first time these findings - the effects we saw in rats - are translated into humans," Turecki said. "If you were abused you will have changes in the way your brain works that are going to determine how you deal with stress, and this could be one way where you are more at risk of suicide."

The study builds on a previous one published in May by the same group that focused on ribosomal RNA - molecules critical for learning and memory - in the brains of men who had killed themselves.

The current study's lead author, Patrick McGowan of McGill, said his team is trying to tease apart the effect of early childhood on suicide itself.

People with a childhood history of abuse are at greater risk of depression and mental illness later in life.

About 90 per cent of people who commit suicide also suffer from mental health issues. More men then women die from suicide, a four to one ration in Quebec.

"Many roads lead to Rome and many factors contribute to whether a person commits suicide. This may be one factor, acting through the stress pathway," McGowan said.

It raises the possibility of designing epigenetic therapies in mental health, McGill's pioneer epigeneticist Moshe Szyf added.

"The social environment like childhood abuse can cause such a profound chemical change in DNA that stays for so long," Szyf said. "Why couldn't an opposite social environment erase those marks? So the potential is there."

Szyf is now looking at differences in social economic status in childhood and the effect on adult DNA, using blood samples.

"The goal is to find markers ... an explanation in the genome markings for the early onset of adult disease," Szyf said. "We all know events early in life can have a profound impact later in life, but we don't know why. That can provide a mechanism."

Epigenetic expert Arturas Petronis of the University of Toronto, who did not participate in the study, called the research "solid," interesting and significant in showing a correlation between complex behaviour and molecular changes due to early environment.

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette


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