NARSAD Young Investigator Grantee Elisabeth Binder, M.D., Ph.D., Research Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, was part of a study group that demonstrated that traumatic experiences can cause lasting changes to a child’s gene regulation and puts them at a high risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and other mood disorders.
This new research shows for the first time that for carriers of specific genetic variants of the FKBP5 gene, early trauma can cause lasting ‘epigenetic' alterations in the gene—in this case lasting dysregulation of the stress hormone system. (FKPB5 determines how effectively the organism can react to stress and regulates the entire stress hormone system.) Epigenetic alterations refer to changes in how genes are expressed without actually altering the underlying DNA structure.
Dr. Binder and her colleagues examined the DNA of 2,000 African Americans who had been subject to repeated episodes of abuse and traumatized as adults or in childhood. They found that one-third of the group developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The children’s risk of developing PTSD was directly correlated with those who carried this specific genetic variant in the FKBP5 gene. No disease-related epigenetic alteration of the FKBP5 gene was detected in participants who were traumatized in adulthood.
The study team found that the greater the severity of abuse, the greater the risk of developing PTSD. They hope their work will lead to a better understanding of the role of epigenetics in the development of mental illness and to more effective treatment strategies for early intervention.