Researchers find childhood trauma affects DNA

Researchers find childhood trauma effects DNA
Published: Jul. 9, 2018 at 10:01 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 9, 2018 at 10:28 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Researchers have found the amount of violence in a neighborhood can directly impact a child biologically, so much so, that the rate of violence directly correlates to the length of telomeres at the end of a child's chromosomes.

"We have evidence that there are changes in the actual DNA in the cells within each child. We have evidence that it changes how children's stress response systems work," said Stacy Drury, the Associate Director of the Tulane Brain Institute.

Drury is hoping to answer the question of how violence affects children biologically. Through her research she's found children who live in neighborhoods with prevalent violence can experience changes that impact them for life and sometimes affects the cortisol levels, or stress hormone control in a child, leaving them on constant alert.

"What happens with kids with trauma is that the normal regulation of when your cortisol level goes down, so you can pay attention, so you can learn in class, so you can engage in social interaction, that regular up and down variation goes away," Drury said.

The outcome of a brain impacted by trauma can often be something hard to decode, especially in a school setting.

"It's more difficult to sit even in a chair. So often they will be thought of as the disruptive kids, so they're the kids that can't sit in the chair, can't wait their turn, always seems to be aggressive when anyone challenges them, and they get misdiagnosed with things like ADHD or disruptive behavior," Drury said.

Jim Kelly, who is the director of Covenant House in New Orleans, a non-profit that offers housing and care for homeless and at-risk youth, thinks the effects of violence can be as impactful as a hit on the gridiron.

"We talked about football players and what happens to their brain, think what happens to the brain of a two, three, four, five-year-old who's experienced abuse, who's witnessed domestic violence, who's witnessed violence on the streets. Think how it rewires that brain, which is in its formative stages," Kelly said.

Kelly argues with the right care, something residents at Covenant House receive, those changes can hopefully fade.

"You can get better, but you need care. You might need medicine, you need love, respect, dignity. So often they're just coming from such violent dysfunctional war zones," Kelly said.

Drury argues the best way to stop the biological changes to a child's brain is to start treatment early.

"We know in some studies that there is a possibility of reversing it. The best evidence we have has been studies that start with little kids and really focus on the caregiver-child relationship," Drury said.

It's a method Brandi Zeno and her mother Helen Dumas, are practicing now at their daycares in Marrero, educating children and their parents.

"Who's teaching them to calm down and how to handle the situation appropriately? When it's not being taught they don't have the tools in their adulthood to handle it," Zeno said. "It's not to condemn them, it's to help them."

"I've had a situation where they come to school and talked about [an incident] for three to four weeks. So we know it's something that was bothering that child and then we'll have a conversation with the parent, let's see what happened, let's see what we can do, how can we counteract that," Dumas said.

Drury said that's exactly where the treatment should start to take special care to help people learn that responses sometimes seen as disobedient or disruptive could be the result of trauma.

"Help them understand what a trauma response is and what is negative emotion and then how to use words relaxation strategies and alternative conflict resolution strategies," Drury said.

Kelly contends there's just not enough resources to spread the message, though, not enough support in schools to train everyone on what trauma looks like and how to treat it.

"We spend so few dollars on young people who are mentally ill and having behavioral health issues as compared to other states across the Union. We've got to invest in helping them to get better sending them off to jail, that's not a place you heal if you're suffering from mental health," Kelly said.

Drury says for every dollar invested in early childhood treatment the economy sees a return between four and nine dollars. Between the economic impact and the clear evidence, she thinks there's just one answer that could fix the problem plaguing our children.

"If we invest in mental health care, and we use evidence-based strategies, and we don't rely on only medication, and if we create safe environment for our youth in five years we will see the violence rate drop, in 10 years we will see the violence rate drop. But if we do not invest in mental health, our substance use will go up, the opioid epidemic will get worse, our gun violence will get worse, our children will not do as well academically, and we will continue to spiral out. It is a central fulcrum to pretty much every economic problem facing our city," Drury said.

Our partners at | The Times-Picayune explored the Science of Trauma in depth in their "The Children of Central City" series. You can read their multi-month project that goes even deeper into the problems facing the youngest in our community here.

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