Starting young. Children with traumatic childhoods are more likely to develop PTSD later in life if they carry certain mutations. Pictured: A child in a homeless shelter. Jim Richardson/Corbis
Genetic mutations predispose abused children to post-traumatic stress disorder
Some 30% of the patients reported physical or sexual abuse, or both, as a child. This group showed twice the number of PTSD symptoms following later traumas, such as an accident or robbery, as those who had not reported being abused. And the prevalence of two particular mutations in the FKBP5 gene were significantly more common in this abused group among those who had PTSD than those who did not. The mutations by themselves do not predict PTSD, showing that it’s the combination of certain genes with the early trauma that leads to the vulnerability. The researchers theorize that some of the mutations make brain cells in children more sensitive to stress hormones throughout their lives.
Teasing out the genetics of PTSD has been difficult. Children who are abused are more susceptible to PTSD as adults, and researchers estimate that up to 40% of this susceptibility is inherited. But just what genes are responsible is not known. One promising lead is FKBP5, a gene that helps regulate binding between stress hormones and their receptors. Research has shown that childhood abuse can lead to overreactivity in the body’s stress response system, so a team at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, decided to see if there was a link between PTSD and mutations in FKBP5.
Leila*, 23, a Yezidi woman originally from Shingal (Sinjar), currently lives with her family in Chamishko IDP Camp in Duhok governorate after they had to flee their home. When Leila was 12 years, her cousin, who was her best friend and like a sister to her, suddenly passed away. Leila was deeply shocked and upset by the news and it impacted her considerably. As a result of losing her cousin, Leila started developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
After receiving MHPSS services in line with her care plan from SEED, Leila’s symptoms started to decrease. She was able to sleep better, experience joy and excitement, and be more social and connect with her friends and family. Leila has more energy, is able to follow a routine and even started a job in the camp. In February 2020, after consultation with the case manager, psychologist, and Leila herself, SEED was able to close her case; she had successfully completed her care and treatment plans and her symptoms were gone. Leila said she feels good, is excited about the future, and very satisfied with the services she received from SEED. “I will recommend anyone who deals with similar issues to reach out to SEED’s staff if they need support.”
Leila and her family were unaware that she was suffering from PTSD and she was undiagnosed for years. Over time, her symptoms grew stronger and she also started showing signs of depression, anxiety, and painful memories of past traumatic events reappeared, often in nightmares. Experiencing flashbacks is very painful. It feels like the event is happening again and one is constantly reminded of the difficult memories. Leila started to develop further emotional distress and physical reactions to events and thoughts that reminded her of her past. She began to have negative thoughts about herself and others, felt despair about the future, disconnected from family and friends, lacked enjoyment during daily activities, emotional numbness, and problems sleeping and concentrating.