Meeting Summary by Misa Kuper
Children exposed to violence: most recent findings on gene-environment interaction and long-term effects on health
The 2012 Klaus-Grawe-Think-Tank meeting, hosted by the Klaus-Grawe-Foundation, took place from June 23 to 27 in Zuoz, Switzerland. The Foundation's purpose is to promote interdisciplinary and innovative research in clinical psychology, psychotherapy and their connected disciplines in order to improve prevention and treatment of psychological disorders, and finally, to convey the evidence base into clinical practice. Twelve international experts from the areas of developmental psychology, neurosciences, molecular biology, genetics, epigenetics, immunology, clinical psychology, child psychiatry, as well as of service delivery and social policy have been invited to participate in this think-tank-meeting and exchange their knowledge in the following subject: “Children as victims: Psychosocial and psychobiological sequelae of early life violence exposure, state of the art, future research recommendations and goals for translation to prevention and intervention programs.”
Comprehensive reviews of population-based studies report prevalence rates of up to 35% for physical or contact sexual abuse, and exposure to family violence during childhood. New research indicates that, apart from its effects on emotional development, child maltreatment also has adverse effects on a child’s long-term physical health. Stressful experiences can lead to biological alterations that are known to be associated with elevated risk for heart disease, immune diseases, stroke, and even dementia.
In two long-running cohort studies conducted in New Zealand (from 1972 onward) and England (from 2000 onward), serious stressful experiences in each child’s life and mental health have been assessed repeatedly in large longitudinal study designs. Research has recently begun to focus on the children’s physical health too, by assessing biomarkers which are known to be associated with higher risks in developing health issues during the course of life. The biomarkers reported on include inflammatory (CRP), epigenetic (DNA-methylation) and genetic factors (Telomeres, mRNA), and the results so far suggest that maltreated children show significant alterations that are associated with a higher risk to develop various health disorders in life course. Data illustrating this association will be presented.
The presented findings yield more evidence and innovative possibilities to detect child maltreatment at an early stage, and they suggest that it can be vital to treat the direct effects as early as possible to prevent the development of a wide range of psychological and physiological health aftereffects. Finally, they suggest that current and future interdisciplinary research is a basic prerequisite to fully understand the processes associated with child maltreatment, and they imply that prevention as well as treatment will need to be tailored and disseminated accordingly.