Victims of child abuse might experience biochemical changes to their brains that leave them more vulnerable to suicidal urges as adults.
A McGill research team—including psychiatry professor Michael Meaney, pharmacology and therapeutics professor Moshe Szyf, post-doctoral fellow Patrick McGowan and Dr. Gustavo Turecki, Director of the McGill Group for Suicide Studies at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute—compared the epigenetic marking in brains of men who had taken their own lives (and who had all experienced abuse as children) with those of accident victims who had grown up under non-abusive circumstances. While DNA is inherited and remains fixed throughout life, the functioning of its genes is influenced by epigenetic marks, a chemical coating which appears to be sensitive to environmental factors early in life. In comparing the brains in the two groups, the McGill team found evidence of epigenetic differences in the protein-synthesizing machinery, essential for learning, memory and the building of new connections in the brain. It is also linked to decision-making. The study was published in the journal Public Library of Science One.
“It’s possible the changes in epigenetic markers were caused by the exposure to childhood abuse,” says Szyf. “The big remaining questions are whether scientists could detect similar changes in blood DNA—which could lead to diagnostic tests—and whether we could design interventions to erase these differences in epigenetic markings.”
This research received funding from CIHR, the Human Science Frontiers Program and the Sackler Program in Developmental Psychobiology and Epigenetics.