Child Abuse Scars
Hormones For Life
By Adam Marcus - HealthSCOUT Reporter
Women who suffer physical and or sexual abuse as young girls may carry the scars of that trauma into adulthood as a severe oversensitivity to stress.
An early history of frequent abuse produces much sharper hormonal and physical responses to mildly stressful events later in life, according to a new study by Georgia researchers. The findings suggest that the brain patterns laid during childhood trauma persist long after the trauma has ceased.
"We need to be able to rise to the occasion when a stressor comes along," says Dr. Jeffrey Newport, an Emory University psychiatrist and a co-author of the study, which appears in this week's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. "The problem comes when events that are not experienced by most people as particularly noxious [spark] an exaggerated response. That's when you run into problems with developing illness."
Scientists have long known, for example, that women with a history of sexual and physical abuse experience more emotional and physical problems than other women.
Women abused as children have four times the normal risk of depression when they reach adulthood and are far more prone to anxiety disorders. Recent work also suggests that even emotional abuse can leave lasting physical scars, including gastric distress, arthritis and pelvic pain.
Even mild things trigger stress
One explanation for the link between early abuse and later problems is the so-called Stress-Diathesis model of mood disorders. This theory argues that episodes of abuse in childhood stimulate stress hormones that eventually become acutely sensitive even to benign stimuli. And since life is an obstacle course of these aggravations, the stress machinery is nearly always working overtime.
In the latest study, the researchers compared stress reactions in 49 women, ages 18 to 45, split into four groups: those who had suffered regular abuse as children and were in the throes of a major depression; those who suffered abuse but had no current emotional troubles; women who had not been abused but were seriously depressed; and a control group of women who had suffered neither abuse nor depression.
To stimulate their stress responses, the women were asked to give 10-minute talks and perform trying mental math tests in front of a stone-faced audience of observers. During the exercises, their hormone concentrations were read through a catheter that had been inserted hours earlier.
Women who had never been abused had similarly slight hormonal reactions to the stressful situations, the researchers found, regardless of their current emotional state.
But those with a history of abuse had marked spikes in cortisol and ACTH, two critical stress response chemicals. These two hormones reflect activity in the corticotropin-releasing factor system, a more basic chemical pathway closely tied to the imprinting of early childhood trauma on stress response in adulthood.
Levels of ACTH in abused, depressed women were six times greater than in women of similar ages in the control group. Victims of past abuse also had greater increases in heart rate, a physical marker of anxiety, than did non-abused women.
All this raises the question: How long after abuse has occurred, if ever, can treatment minimize the imprint on the stress system of the trauma?
"There may be a window of opportunity in the immediate aftermath when we could make a difference," Newport says.
He and his colleagues are now testing the effectiveness of antidepressants on soothing the hair-trigger stress responses of abused women. If those drugs succeed, perhaps similar therapies could be used in children as ways to prevent overreactive patterns from setting in, he says.
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