Child Abuse Changes Your Brain and How Your Body Reads Your DNA

In this article, I explain brand new research which examines the significant and measurable connections between child abuse, our mental health, and treatment of addiction.

Dr. Chad McDonald

8/2/20232 min read

persons face in close up
persons face in close up


Child abuse and neglect are critical issues that affect millions of children worldwide, with far-reaching consequences that extend into adulthood. A recent article titled "The Devastating Clinical Consequences of Child Abuse and Neglect: Increased Disease Vulnerability and Poor Treatment Response in Mood Disorders" by Elizabeth T. C. Lippard and Charles B. Nemeroff, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, delves into the profound effects of early-life trauma on mental health. In this post, I will summarize their findings, using casual language to make this complex topic more accessible to a general audience.

The Prevalence of Child Abuse

Child abuse and neglect are more common than we might think, affecting children from all walks of life. Sadly, not all cases are reported, and many victims suffer silently. The study by Lippard and Nemeroff highlights the importance of understanding the long-term consequences of these traumatic experiences.

Effects of Child Abuse on Mental Health

The impact of child abuse on mental health is both heartbreaking and alarming. The study reveals that individuals who have experienced childhood abuse are more vulnerable to developing mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety, later in life. The psychological wounds inflicted during childhood can cast a long shadow, affecting the individual's emotional well-being even in adulthood.

Biological Mechanisms at Play

The authors shed light on the biological mechanisms that underpin this link between childhood trauma and mood disorders. They discuss how early-life stress can alter the brain's development, particularly the regions responsible for regulating emotions. These changes can persist throughout life, making individuals more susceptible to mood disorders and less responsive to traditional treatments.

The Role of Epigenetics

Epigenetics, a fascinating field of study, comes into play in understanding the relationship between child abuse and mental health. Lippard and Nemeroff explain that traumatic experiences can cause changes in the way genes are expressed without altering the genetic code itself. Without the Doctorspeak, this means that when we are abused as children, the way that our body uses our DNA to function is altered. The DNA stays the same, and the proteins and activities in the body is measurably different. This can lead to long-lasting effects on mental health and overall well-being.

Challenges in Treatment

Treating mood disorders arising from childhood trauma poses unique challenges. The study highlights that individuals with a history of child abuse may not respond as well to standard treatments for mood disorders. This emphasizes the need for specialized, trauma-informed approaches to help these individuals on their path to recovery.

Breaking the Silence: The Role of Support and Therapy

One crucial takeaway from the study is the importance of breaking the silence surrounding child abuse and supporting survivors. Connecting with understanding and empathetic individuals, such as therapists and support groups, can be a lifeline for those struggling with the aftermath of trauma.


The study conducted by Elizabeth T. C. Lippard and Charles B. Nemeroff in the American Journal of Psychiatry highlights the devastating effects of child abuse on mental health. Childhood trauma can increase vulnerability to mood disorders and reduce treatment response, making it essential for society to address this issue with compassion and understanding. By shedding light on the long-term consequences of child abuse, we can work towards creating a world where children grow up in safe, nurturing environments, giving them the best chance at leading fulfilling and mentally healthy lives.

(Lippard, E. T. C., & Nemeroff, C. B. (2023). The Devastating Clinical Consequences of Child Abuse and Neglect: Increased Disease Vulnerability and Poor Treatment Response in Mood Disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry, 180(8), 548-564. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.19010020.)