Violence Alters Kids' DNA

Exposure to violent events at an early age can change the way cells reproduce

(RxWiki News) Stress can make people look tired, worn out and even older than they really are. It turns out, that stress from being around violence during childhood can start the aging process on a cellular level too.

A recent study that looks at the aging of DNA cells finds evidence that major stressors, like acts of domestic violence, can effect kids as young as 5 years old.

"Report violent acts, especially when a child is involved!"

Idan Shalev PhD., is working on his post-doctoral studies in psychology and neuroscience at the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy, and his research on the effects of violence on children’s DNA has produced some interesting results.

With late-life disease on the rise, scientists are looking at early life factors that could have played a role in contributing to late-life diseases. Shalev looked at the DNA of 236 children exposed to one or more violent incidents when they were 5 years old and then again when they were 10 years old.

Specifically, Shalev’s team was looking at telomeres. Telomeres are DNA sequences that act like a ‘cap’ at the end of a chromosome. They make sure that the DNA sequences that make up a chromosome pair doesn’t ‘fray’, connect with any thing else, or lose any DNA at the end of the sequence.

Telomeres start off very long, because every time a cell divides a little bit of the telomere is lost. This is normal, but at a certain point the telomere will become too short and the cell cannot replicate again and the cell dies. This is the mechanism of aging.

Shalev discovered that kids exposed to violence at an early age have a greater loss of telomere DNA than kids not exposed to violence. This is called ‘telomere erosion’. The results of the study showed that kids exposed to two or more violent events: “showed significantly more telomere erosion between age-5 baseline and age-10 follow-up measurements, even after adjusting for sex, socioeconomic status and body mass index.”

“This is the first time it has been shown that out telomeres can shorten at a faster rate even at a really young age, while kids are still experiencing stress,” says Shalev.

The results of this study may provide valuable information in telomere research, disease risk factors, and violence prevention awareness. While there is not yet a known way to reverse the effects of telomere erosion, these preliminary findings will provide the basis for further understanding of cellular aging.

This study was published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, April 2012.

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Review Date: 
April 28, 2012