In the work described below, scientists demonstrate that child maltreatment is associated with DNA methylation, a chemical modification, of the gene (OXT) that encodes the so-called “love hormone” oxytocin. By altering the regulation of oxytocin, child maltreatment cascades into alterations in brain development, structure, and function, as shown through cutting-edge brain imaging techniques. These insights could pave the way for novel therapeutic strategies to treat psychiatric disorders associated with childhood abuse. Child maltreatment, which spans child abuse and neglect, can adversely affect healthy development of the brain. Adults who were abused as children tend to develop atypical brain structures, which can lead to various psychiatric disorders and even suicide. Fortunately, during and shortly after adolescence, the neocortical regions of the brain (brain regions concerned with thought, perception, and episodic memory) undergo a major reorganization, which provides an opportunity to treat some of the disorders caused by child maltreatment. Is there a biological mechanism that could be effectively targeted during this reorganization to improve the lives of victims of childhood abuse?
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