Epigenetic effects of childhood abuse on the human brain

Benoit Labonté, Gustavo Turecki

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Introduction The environment in which we live, and especially the early life environment, shapes our behavior. Adversity during early life is strongly associated with problems in behavioral regulation and psychopathology in adulthood. Until recently, the mechanisms responsible for behavioral changes induced by early life adversity were not clear. However, recent evidence suggests that early life environment induces behavioral changes through epigenetic mechanisms controlling the expression of genes involved in the regulation of behavior. As such, the epigenome mediates the effects of environmental variability on behavioral, physiological, and pathological responses. Numerous findings in animals and humans support this view. This chapter will review the evidence suggesting that epigenetic changes are induced by the early environment and impact on the regulation of gene expression in the brain. The burden of childhood adverse experience With more than 3 million reports of child maltreatment in the USA in 2009, early life adversity is a major problem with an important social burden (Children’s Bureau, 2010). From this number, parental neglect represents the major form of maltreatment followed by physical abuse and sexual abuse (Children’s Bureau, 2010). From an epidemiological point of view, trauma exposure in children is estimated to range between 25% and 45%, although the rates reported vary considerably between studies and according to the definition of abuse types (Gorey and Leslie, 1997; McCauley et al., 1997; Briere and Elliott, 2003; Scher et al., 2004; Heim et al., 2010). For instance, a prospective study reported prevalence of child maltreatment of 30% in women and 41% in men, from which 5% of cases were sexual abuse and 19% physical abuse (Briere and Elliott, 2003). Survey-based studies report rates varying between 12% and 32% for sexual abuse in females and between 5% and 14% in men (Gorey and Leslie, 1997; McCauley et al., 1997; Briere and Elliott, 2003; Scher et al., 2004; Heim et al., 2010).

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEpigenomics
Subtitle of host publicationFrom Chromatin Biology to Therapeutics
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9780511777271
ISBN (Print)9781107003828
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2012
Externally publishedYes


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