Abuse and Neglect Changes Behavior of Children’s Genes

Unhappy, solitary child leans against brick wallMost people have heard of—and perhaps even participated in—the nature-versus-nurture debate, but an increasing body of research suggests that the dichotomy between nature and nurture is a false one. A new study on the effects of abuse in children has found that traumas such as neglect and physical abuse can change the way children’s genes are activated.

How Environment Changes Genes

Not all of your genes are active all of the time. Instead, the genes are turned on or off as a result of both environmental and biological cues. One way genes are activated is through a process called DNA methylation. Previous research has shown that children exposed to abuse have more difficulty regulating their emotions and socially interacting with others. A new study, published in Child Development, aimed to understand the genetic underpinnings of behavioral changes in abused children.

Changes in the glucocorticoid receptor gene—also known as NR3C1—could help explain changes in abused children’s behavior. This gene is thought to affect social skills and mental health. Researchers drew blood samples from 56 children ranging in age from 11 to 14. Half of the children had been physically abused. They found that children who had been abused had increased methylation on several areas of the gene, most notably an area of the gene that helps produce nerve growth factor. Nerve growth factor plays a vital role in brain development. All of the children had normal NR3C1 genes at birth, suggesting that the abuse—and not biology—changed the behavior of the gene. 

The Steep Costs of Child Abuse

About a million children are abused every year, and most cases of child abuse are not reported to authorities. Thirty percent of adult child abuse victims abuse their own children. It’s certainly not news that child abuse is bad for children and for society, but this latest study provides clear evidence that the effects of child abuse last well beyond childhood.

Although changes in gene activation can dramatically alter behavior, these changes don’t necessarily have to be permanent. Some previous research has suggested that, when parents stop abusing their children, the methylation effects of abuse may actually be reversed. The study’s authors emphasize the need for more research into this possibility and highlight the importance of early interventions for children exposed to abuse.


  1. Society for Research in Child Development. (2014, July 24). Maltreatment affects the way children’s genes are activated. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/07/140724094207.htm
  2. National child abuse statistics. (n.d.). Childhelp. Retrieved from http://www.childhelp.org/pages/statistics

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  • woody

    July 29th, 2014 at 3:35 PM

    The only hopeful thing that I see is that there are opportunities to go back and changes some of this if the kids are given the right course of treatment and therapy. I would hate to think that this has to be pretty much a sentence to a horrible life for them even after they have grown older and perhaps have escaped the abuse. There is hope for change and I think that any victim of abuse needs to hear that message loud and clear from the people who are important to them in their lives.

  • Dan

    July 30th, 2014 at 4:17 AM

    So very fascinating. Genes being changed by environment that you are raised in seems almost surreal, but apparently true.

  • Hannah

    July 31st, 2014 at 4:22 AM

    People who are abused as children have scars that most of us will never see, much less understand. This would have to be a long recovery process to get through this sort of pain and abuse.

  • Mae

    August 6th, 2014 at 3:29 PM

    Is there any way to know that these changes really occurred? Are you studying what it looks like before and after or just simply making assumptions of what the genetics should look like in a “normal” child raised in a “normal” setting?

  • Fran F

    September 3rd, 2014 at 6:16 PM

    The science behind this study is compelling. Current studies seem to add support to the rule of thumb we used to use in the direct care interventions into the lives of the people we used to call “troubled youth.” We used this rule as a reminder to ourselves that how we interacted with these young people mattered. The rule is the 30-30-30 rule. It means that 30% of the adolescents we saw — nothing could save them from the damage they had suffered. 30% would pretty much “age out,” as long as we could manage to do them no further damage. For the final 30% how we treated them did matter. They could slide into either group. And what about the last 10%? Those were the invisible children. We might have come into contact with them. They may have been on our lists and rolls, but the attention they got from us amounted to zero.

    As I read it, the percentages reported in this study support this same kind of uncertainty. The question not answered in this brief summary is pretty simple: What else — besides abuse — causes increased methalation?

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