Stress in Early Childhood Could Make The Brain’s DNA Remap Itself

It’s true that DNA is first formed in the womb, but did you know that DNA can change even after a person is born? And did you know that DNA changes can be caused by chronic stress and trauma, especially in early childhood? This article will explore the effects of stress on the brain, especially when the stress is experienced in early childhood.

Childhood experiences change DNA

Although it is widely accepted that humans cannot remember much from our first few years of life, our brains still know what happens to us when we are very young. Our first few years of life can be crucial to how our brains are wired, and our experiences in childhood can even change our DNA.

As explained in this article, a study conducted in 2018 revealed that when baby mice were neglected by their mother it altered the genes in their brain cells. It is likely that humans undergo similar processes and this could be at least partially responsible for some neurological disorders. 

Stress alters the brain 

Chronic stress and cortisol can alter and permanently damage the brain, according to this study conducted by neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley. Because of this, scientists believe that when a baby, child, or young adult is exposed to a great deal of stress or trauma they are likely to developmental and emotional issues like depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and learning disabilities later in life. 

Part of the issue is that cortisol, the hormone associated with stress, can over time cause the brain to be in a continual state of “fight or flight” mode. If you have ever been in a minor car accident, think about the adrenaline rush you experienced when your car has hit something. If that happens over and over again, your brain can get stuck in this fight or flight mode of high adrenaline. 

Chronic stress can make stem cells morph into a type of cell that blocks connections to the part of the brain associated with memory and learning, the prefrontal cortex of the brain, while at the same time assisting the development of anxiety, PTSD, and depression. Studies also show that the type of stress is important in terms of the effects on the brain. “Good” stress, such as the stress of studying for a test or training for an athletic competition, can actually help the brain develop resiliency. “Bad” stress, which is chronic stress or stress caused by trauma or other negative events, is the kind of stress that is damaging to the brain. 

The damage is reversible 

The good news is that there is evidence to suggest that since the brain can change in a negative way that causes mental, emotional, and learning problems, it can also change for the better, even in adulthood. The brain is more vulnerable and able to change in youth, but adults can still retrain their brains to create new neural pathways to fight anxiety and depression. 

Some of the popular, easy, and freeways to lower cortisol levels are regular exercise, yoga, and meditation. A healthy diet, certain supplements, and proper sleep habits can also help the brain heal and retrain. For some, these methods alone work to retrain the brain. Many others need medication, talk therapy, or even technological developments like TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) to help create new neural pathways and reduce stress. 

The takeaway

Scientists agree that the brain and its DNA can change throughout life, and are especially susceptible to change in early childhood. Stress and trauma can alter the brain’s DNA and neural pathways so much that they can lead to serious mental and emotional problems. Although we cannot control what happens to us in childhood, as adults we can work to retrain our brains and our response to stress. 

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