Child abuse has an even more damaging effect on its victims than previously thought, according to a new Harvard University study. Child sexual abuse may actually ‘scar’ DNA on the molecular level, leading to genetic damage that gets passed between generations.
Harvard University research based on a sample of men found differences in chemical marks within the genetic code of those who were sexually abused as children.
“We already know there are a lot of behavioral mechanisms by which trauma has negative effects on the next generation,” Harvard scientist Dr Andrea Roberts told The Independent.
“Trauma obviously really affects the behavior of people traumatized. It often makes them depressed, it gives them post-traumatic stress disorder, and those mental health conditions affect their parenting and affect the kids. This is another possible pathway.”
Using sperm samples from a small set of 34 men, of which 22 had suffered some form of sexual abuse at the hands of pedophiles when they were children, the new research, published in Nature, found 12 areas in the survivors’ DNA that were affected by some form of ‘molecular scarring.’
This ‘molecular scarring’ in DNA is caused by a chemical process known as methylation, the process by which a methyl group is added to DNA, which can have a ‘dampening effect’ on certain gene expressions.
The full impact of this process on the men’s health has yet to be determined, however, as longer-term research is needed, however scarred DNA was seen to be passed from one generation to the next, raising the prospect that trauma is passed genetically between generations.
“Some very good findings from mice have shown that early life stressors affect the marks on the sperm, and then in turn those affect the health of the offspring in particular creating a kind of anxious behavior,” Dr Roberts added.
The researchers found eight DNA regions that showed a significant difference of over 10 percent, while one region in particular had been dampened by up to 29 percent.
Not only do these findings suggest a long-term physical impact of trauma on an individual level, but the presence of these changes in sperm cells suggests the legacy of child abuse is passed between generations.