A group of New Orleans researchers found that children exposed to domestic violence are at risk for mental and physical illness due to a breakdown in their DNA.
Dr. Stacy Drury, director of the Behavioral and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Laboratory at Tulane University, and Dr. Katherine Theall, a Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine epidemiologist, led the study. The results (“The Association of Telomere Length With Family Violence and Disruption”) published in the June issue of the American Association of Pediatrics journal Pediatrics focus on telomores, which cap DNA chromosomes and prevent deterioration. Shortened telomeres lead to aging and cancer.
The study — which followed 80 New Orleans children ages 5 to 15 who were exposed to family-level violence — found that telomere lengths were “significantly shorter in children with higher exposure to family violence and disruption.”
Dr. Elizabeth “Birdie” Shirtcliff, a behavior endocrinologist with the University of New Orleans Department of Psychology, also authored the study. In 2013, Shirtcliff talked to Gambit about the long-term physical and mental impacts of stress — specifically among children experiencing or witnessing domestic and family-level violence. Shirtcliff said telomeres help “keep it all from fraying.”
“What we’re finding is that not only stress biomarkers change gene expression whether DNA is making proteins or not, but also that early stress and that exposure to violence, abuse, poverty — what happens is that your DNA will … methylate, unravel and put a thick chunk on it which says, ‘That’s not going to work anymore,'” she said. “By the time we’re seeing it in the periphery it’s definitely happening in the DNA.”
Shirtcliff added that DNA stress poses an “intergenerational transmission of risk” from one generation to the next. The study also found that girls are more susceptible to telomere stress than boys.