Understanding the biology linking childhood trauma to long-term health problems

Children who experience abuse or neglect, or grow up in unstable environments, have a greater risk of health problems including asthma, cognitive delays, obesity, heart disease and cancer, throughout their lives, a growing body of evidence suggests. To understand why, researchers are looking at the measureable physical changes that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) cause to young brains and bodies. The hope is that identifying these biomarkers will help pinpoint which children are most at risk for health problems, and provide targets for treatment.

One promising area of research involves the stress hormone cortisol. In infancy, interactions with caregivers shapes the way bodies learn to handle stress. In the absence of supportive caregiving, this system may not develop properly.

Jack Shonkoff, Julius B. Richmond FAMRI Professor of Child Health and Development at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, chairs the JBP Research Network on Toxic Stress, which is looking at biomarkers to measure excessive stress activation in children. He said in a January 25, 2021 article in Knowable Magazine that his team hopes to identify biomarker variations associated with exposure to different types of ACEs. This may ultimately help clinicians determine which type of therapy or other treatment might be most appropriate for a child.

Read the Knowable Magazine article: Unseen scars of childhood trauma

Learn more

Screening for adverse childhood experiences to reduce toxic stress (Harvard Chan School news)

Launching a revolution (Harvard Public Health magazine)