Childhood Trauma – It Can Change Your DNA

We all have memories of childhood stress. Some encounters were trivial, while others left a lasting impression – literally. Researchers have discovered that experiencing repeated and severe trauma while growing up can permanently alter your DNA. This has a huge impact on a person’s predisposition to mental illness later in life.
In this study, scientists at the Max Plank Institute of Psychiatry examined the DNA of almost 2000 participants. Specifically, they looked at a gene named FKBP5. This gene helps create stress hormones, which is our body’s signal to freak out. Those of us with a specific version of this gene can have our DNA irreversibly altered by childhood, but not adulthood, stress.
So how does this happen? Normally, this genetic material has a natural “mute button” attached to it. When children with a particular version of this gene are placed under constant trauma, the “mute button” gets broken. This results in the production of tons of stress hormones – with no off switch. Essentially, the body loses its ability to handle stressful situations. This increases the risk of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. Though any trauma is bad, these findings give researchers another avenue to examine when trying to tailor treatments for patients. It might also be helpful to avoid traumatizing your kids – but making them eat their broccoli probably doesn’t count.

About the author

Melissa Carmen Cheung, PhD

Passionate about sharing science with the public in a fun and accessible way, Melissa is a Medical Communications professional who earned her Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Sciences from the University of Toronto. Though her research focused on the design of novel cancer therapeutics, Melissa is intrigued by all facets of science. Her goal in life is to captivate people with the same excitement she feels for science.


  • with respect, this doesn’t say much that is really useful.
    Many people have experiences in childhood that could be described as extremely stressful-how does one know for instance that the “Mute Button”
    was turned on. How is the stress effect measured? How extreme is this as far as numbers of people affected per the aforementioned study?

  • The fact that a psychological state can alter your DNA is a huge discovery. This is just the first step.

    Your statement is like saying, Benjamin Franklin discovering electricity is useless because he couldn’t use it right away.

  • Glad to see that you’re curious to learn more. The so-called “mute button” is actually a methyl group that is supposed to be permanently attached to a DNA base on everyone’s FKBP5 gene (essentially, the default is to prevent this gene from overreacting).

    This study examined the most traumatic situations possible (i.e. abuse). However, researchers have yet to investigate or find a so-called threshold with respect to stressful situations. A lot more research would be required. The likelihood of having your DNA altered by stress would also depend on a person’s genetic makeup. The number of people affected depends on the percentage of those who are at risk (i.e. who carry a specific version of this gene). A predisposition would increase the chances of having this methyl group literally break off the DNA base under the aforementioned circumstances. The only method to measure whether or not you are a) predisposed or b) have lost this methyl group is through DNA analysis as conducted by these researchers.

    In terms of population, this study only examined individuals of African-American descent. Since genes are inherited, any numbers from this study (with respect to likelihood of having this gene variant and increased risk) would only be relevant to that subsection of the population. More research would be required before scientists would feel comfortable making a blanket statement with regards to the general population. It is also worthwhile to note that any abuse leads to a higher risk of developing mental illness later on in life. There are many other genes involved in our stress response. Some of these may also be affected, to varying degrees, by trauma.

    As is often the case with research, any new discovery leads to many more questions. It definitely keeps things interesting.

  • Thanks for your further explanation.Raises a whole bunch of more questions of course.
    It is an interesting subject and the beginnings of further studies in a relatively new field of
    DNA concerning cause and effects, particularly in Child Physchology. Do you have any other links or references to this research and/or the FKBP5 Gene? Thanks for your post(s).
    P.S.I don’t think Benjamin Franklin would have
    discovered anything without curiousity, not to mention Thale,Gray, and a few others before him.

  • Of course, I’d be happy to provide more materials for you to read. Glad this has piqued your interest in the subject area.

    Here is a link to the original publication of the research. It’s the website of the peer-reviewed journal that this research was published in (one of the top research journals in the world). Unfortunately, due to copyright reasons, a copy of this work must be purchased to be read (and I am not permitted to distribute it for free). However, you can still read the abstract (free of charge) and in case you’re interested in more, you always have the option to purchase a full copy:

    Another site you might want to take a look at is that of the Max Plank Society. This is the link to their news release about this research:

    Since you sound so curious, here’s another link that you might enjoy. It’s an older article written a few years ago (for a general audience) that discusses the link between FKBP5 gene variants and mental illness (but not the effect of childhood trauma on gene expression since this article predates the discovery):

    Happy reading!

  • Thanks for responding and for being helpful.
    You have given me enough to start with and again I thank you for posting all this.
    Have a great xmas and all the best for the new year.

  • Is there any scientific evidence that trauma which occurred in the past has an effect on modern day society. For example your family may have been involved in a traumatic incident 100-200 or 2000 years ago would effect today’s DNA?

    Also are there any researchers looking into trauma that occurs within a civilization or a race of people?

    what do you think?

  • Good question. It is interesting to consider whether past trauma can affect current and future generations. The tricky part would be to prove that trauma from centuries ago was the single factor that directly affected the DNA expression of the present generation.

    One component to consider is the genetic diversity that exists within a single society. People from the same community can have different versions of the same gene. Therefore, they may react differently to the same experience – including the effect on their DNA.

    It would be interesting to see if the link you’re asking about exists. Another point to bear in mind is the ability to differentiate between genetic alterations that are passed on from generation to generation, versus environmental factors. A community-wide traumatic event could have affected how future generations were raised. Perhaps the incident itself changed the environment (eg, addition of chemicals). Separating the effect the environment on DNA expression from the effect of the event itself would be complicated. If future generations moved, the same quandary exists. The stress of relocating alone can be a confounding factor.

    Moreover, even if a traumatic experience affected and altered someone’s DNA expression, such a change would only be passed onto future generations if it occurred in the reproductive cells.

    If you are interested, the below link leads to the U.S. National Cancer Institute’s index of slides explaining genetics (link #11 explains hereditary mutations):

    Recently, a noteworthy article was published by the Harvard School of Public Health. It links a woman’s childhood abuse to an increased risk of having autistic children. However, even those researchers warn that they did not prove cause-and-effect. Regardless, the research is interesting. Here is a link to an article summarizing the research:

    Hopefully this has provided you with a good starting point to further delve into the topic. Glad to see that you’re finding the research thought-provoking.