Globally in the past year, as many as 1 billion children experienced violence or neglect. A new collaborative study involving scientists at the UW–Madison Center for Healthy Minds provides physiological evidence that group therapy involving mindfulness, creative expression and reprocessing of traumatic experiences can help these victims begin to heal.
In the first randomized controlled study of its kind, teens who participated in an intensive 1-week group therapy program in which mindfulness was a key ingredient showed a substantial reduction in trauma-related mental health issues and improved attention and awareness compared with those who did not participate in the program.
An extension of this work has now been published in the journal Scientific Reports. This latest research shows that the program triggered epigenetic changes in genes involved in the pathophysiology of childhood trauma, such as vulnerability to stress, neurotransmission, inflammatory responses and behavior.
Environmental and behavioral factors can result in long-lasting epigenetic changes, such as the methylation of DNA, that modulate gene expression to turn genes "on" and "off."
Researchers found hundreds of DNA methylation changes that correlated with the mental health improvements in response to the program. The findings offer hope for strategies to help overcome some of the lasting effects of childhood trauma.
“We are really excited to see the encouraging results that we obtained through this study,” says Perla Kaliman, an honorary fellow at the Center for Healthy Minds and the study's lead author. “This work generates scientific evidence to help promote health policies with the potential to reduce a great deal of suffering and health risk factors in children and adolescents.”