Exposure to traumatic events during childhood could explain adult vulnerabilities to certain health problems, according to new research.
The study, conducted by researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London and the NIHR Maudsley BRC, found that childhood trauma could trigger changes to the immune system.
It is these changes that can determine one’s vulnerability to certain health problems in adulthood, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and a number of psychiatric disorders.
The researchers defined childhood trauma as the experience of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse or neglect while the victim was younger than 17. There are well-documented links between childhood trauma and psychiatric disorders – including depression, anxiety, psychosis, and PTSD – and a thorough understanding of the connections between trauma and some physical health problems – including arthritis, heart disease, lung disease, and cancer.
But research has only recently begun to focus on the link between emotional trauma and the immune system.
The study took the form of a meta-analysis of 25 studies, all of which had examined the link between traumatic experiences during childhood and inflammation during adulthood.
In addition to finding that adults who had experienced childhood trauma had heightened inflammation, which increases their risk of type 2 diabetes, the researchers found that different kinds of trauma affect the biomarkers differently.
“Our findings are important not only because they help us to understand more about why people with a history of childhood trauma may develop psychiatric disorders or physical problems in adulthood, but also because they open the possibility of prevention and treatment strategies for these individuals,” said Dr. Valeria Mondelli, of the department of Psychological Medicine at the IoPPn.
“For instance, using these inflammatory markers might make it possible to identify victims of childhood trauma who are at higher risk of developing physical or mental health problems, and to test potential treatments which could decrease inflammation in these individuals.
“However, further research into this and the molecular mechanisms behind these associations is warranted.”
Dr. Mondelli concluded: “Understanding the biological consequences of childhood trauma may be crucial for identifying why some individuals go on to develop physical or psychiatric disorders following these traumatic experiences, whereas others remain resilient in face of similar traumatic exposure.”
The study was published in Molecular Psychiatry.

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