Difficult childhood leaves a mark on DNA

Exposure to stress in early childhood increases the risks of psychological conditions for the rest of your life. It used to be unclear why stress during the early childhood can increase someone's vulnerability for so long afterwards. Research on humans shows that chemical changes in DNA are closely connected to childhood traumas and that they have a direct influence on stress.

This research done by University Medical Center Utrecht, Utrecht University's Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences and the Max Planck Institute supports the findings of earlier research done on animals. It exposes a biological mechanism in which stress during the early childhood increases people's vulnerability to stress for the rest of their lives. This research has been published in Nature Communications.


DNA methylation is an epigenetic change that does not alter the DNA but does change the activity of genes. On one location on the KITLG gene, the researchers found that exposure to stress at an adult age showed a clear connection between childhood traumas and deviating amounts of the stress hormone cortisol.

Why do people respond differently to stress?

These results will give us a better understanding of how mental illnesses develop, why people respond differently to stress and who are most vulnerable to it.

The discovered location on the KITLG gene can possibly serve as a diagnostic marker for adults with mental issues.


This new knowledge makes you wonder to which extent it is possible to alter the process of DNA methylation. In cancer research in particular, there is already significant attention for the development of medication that does this. In the future, this could lead to the development of medication that alters the DNA methylation in patients with mental illnesses.

It might be possible to reduce the detrimental effects of traumatic childhood experiences or even prevent them, which can contribute to an optimal mental health in adult years.

This research is closely related to Utrecht University's strategic theme Dynamics of Youth.