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Physical or emotional abuse during childhood accelerates the body's aging process, according to a study by a team of scientists led by a Brown professor.

The study has the potential to explain how biology and experience come together to produce risk for illnesses, according to the study's lead author, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior Audrey Tyrka.  Tyrka said she hoped the research would also lead to illness prevention.

"This is really critical because if we step back and look at life, for a healthy long life, what you need most is the ability for your cells to divide to protect your genetic material," Tyrka said. "So if there's something that's interfering with that process, then it can adversely affect your longevity and your health."

Before conducting the study, the group of researchers examined the stress hormone system responsible for coordinating the body's response to stress, Tyrka said. People with histories of childhood abuse or neglect had abnormalities in their systems, she said.

The current study did not look at the hormone system, but instead at telomeres, which are DNA repeats at the ends of chromosomes. Part of the telomeres' function is to protect the coding regions of chromosomes, Tyrka said.

The researchers surveyed a group of 31 healthy adults who have no current or past psychiatric or medical conditions . They found that adults with histories of childhood abuse or neglect had significantly shorter telomeres than the adults who weren't abused in childhood, Tyrka said.

Questions still remain about the overall causal mechanism, Tyrka said, including the question of exactly how such stress exposures might relate to reduced telomere length.

"We don't have all the pieces to that puzzle yet," she said.

The study drew researchers from a variety of fields different areas. "I would call this a multidisciplinary research approach," Tyrka said.

The group is planning a larger study in the future to look at telomere length in relation to stress and access to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system, Tyrka said, which scientists think is involved in shorter telomere length.

Elizabeth Blackburn — who, along with two other scientists, developed the method for measuring telomeres — was awarded a 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Oct. 5.

An article in Monday's Herald, ("Abuse during childhood speeds aging, prof shows," Nov. 30) quoted Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior Audrey Tyrka as saying "What you need most is the ability for yourself to divide to protect your genetic material." The correct quote is "What you need most is the ability for your cells to divide to protect your genetic material." The Herald regrets the error.




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