Children who experience violence early in life develop faster

A study in Biological Psychiatry examines the effects of early life adversity on pubertal development and epigenetic age


Philadelphia, October 31, 2018

A study in Biological Psychiatry has shown that exposure to violence early in life—such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse—is associated with faster biological aging, including pubertal development and a cellular metric of biological aging called epigenetic age. In contrast, children exposed to forms of early life adversity involving deprivation—such as neglect and food insecurity—showed signs of delayed pubertal development compared with their peers.

“[The findings] demonstrate that different types of early-life adversity can have different consequences for children’s development,” said senior author Katie McLaughlin, PhD, who completed the study at University of Washington. Poor physical and mental health outcomes associated with early life adversity have been attributed to accelerated development. However, the new findings show that violence- and deprivation-related adversity have different effects on development, indicating that the specific type of adversity should be considered to better understand how an experience will affect a child later in life.

In children who experienced early life violence, accelerated epigenetic aging was associated with increased symptoms of depression. According to the authors, this means that faster biological aging may be one way that early life adversity “gets under the skin” to contribute to later health problems.

The 247 children and adolescents involved in the study were 8–16 years old. “These findings indicate that accelerated aging following exposure to violence early in life can already be detected in children as young as 8 years old,” said Dr. McLaughlin.

“With each new study, it seems that our appreciation grows of the enormous and persisting impact of early life exposure to violence. This new knowledge calls for increased societal investment in reducing the exposure of children to violence and for biomedical and psychological research to reduce the impact of these experiences throughout the lives of these vulnerable individuals,” said John Krystal, MD, Editor of Biological Psychiatry.

Although researchers don’t know if accelerated epigenetic aging is permanent or if it can be reversed, the association between the aging metrics and symptoms of depression in this study may offer a way for doctors to identify children who need help. “Accelerated epigenetic age and pubertal stage could be used to identify youth who are developing faster than expected given their chronological age and who might benefit from intervention. Pubertal stage is an especially useful marker because it is easy and inexpensive to assess by healthcare providers, and could be used to identify youth who may need more intensive health services,” said Dr. McLaughlin.

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Notes for editors
The article is "Early Experiences of Threat, but not Deprivation, Are Associated With Accelerated Biological Aging in Children and Adolescents," by Jennifer A. Sumner, Natalie L. Colich, Monica Uddin, Don Armstrong, and Katie A. McLaughlin (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2018.09.008). It appears in Biological Psychiatry, published by Elsevier.

Copies of this paper are available to credentialed journalists upon request; please contact Rhiannon Bugno at Biol.Psych@UTSouthwestern.edu or +1 214 648 0880. Journalists wishing to interview the authors may contact Katie McLaughlin at kmclaughlin@fas.harvard.edu or +1 617 496 1468.

The authors’ affiliations and disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available in the article.

John H. Krystal, MD, is Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine, Chief of Psychiatry at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and a research psychiatrist at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System. His disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available here.

About Biological Psychiatry
Biological Psychiatry is the official journal of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, whose purpose is to promote excellence in scientific research and education in fields that investigate the nature, causes, mechanisms and treatments of disorders of thought, emotion, or behavior. In accord with this mission, this peer-reviewed, rapid-publication, international journal publishes both basic and clinical contributions from all disciplines and research areas relevant to the pathophysiology and treatment of major psychiatric disorders.

The journal publishes novel results of original research which represent an important new lead or significant impact on the field, particularly those addressing genetic and environmental risk factors, neural circuitry and neurochemistry, and important new therapeutic approaches. Reviews and commentaries that focus on topics of current research and interest are also encouraged.

Biological Psychiatry is one of the most selective and highly cited journals in the field of psychiatric neuroscience. It is ranked 6th out of 142 Psychiatry titles and 9th out of 261 Neurosciences titles in the Journal Citations Reports® published by Thomson Reuters. The 2017 Impact Factor score for Biological Psychiatry is 11.982. www.sobp.org/journal

About Elsevier
Elsevier is a global information analytics business that helps institutions and professionals advance healthcare, open science and improve performance for the benefit of humanity. Elsevier provides digital solutions and tools in the areas of strategic research management, R&D performance, clinical decision support and professional education, including ScienceDirect, Scopus, SciVal, ClinicalKey and Sherpath. Elsevier publishes over 2,500 digitized journals, including The Lancet and Cell, more than 38,000 e-book titles and many iconic reference works, including Gray's Anatomy. Elsevier is part of RELX Group, a global provider of information and analytics for professionals and business customers across industries. www.elsevier.com

Media contact
Rhiannon Bugno, Editorial Office
Biological Psychiatry
+1 214 648 0880
Biol.Psych@UTSouthwestern.edu