Sadly, for some time, it has been known that children who suffer abuse, neglect, poverty, or trauma often develop depression and other psychiatric illnesses. As adults, that kind of stress often translates into greater incidence of medical illnesses, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.
At least in part, this can be explained by the fact that all of life experiences, especially those of the early years, influence which genes are turned off or on; a process called, epigenetics. This would be a terrible life sentence except for the very hopeful findings of recent research.
Happily, new information gives reason for optimism. Work done by Yale School of Medicine professor, Joan Kaufman.* shows that the effects of adverse childhood experiences don’t have to be permanent. The concept of a “critical period” in which a brain pathway becomes fixed has long been considered the limit of a brain’s capacity to develop or change. That narrow window has now given way to a much more expansive “sensitive period” when the brain is more susceptible to environmental influences but retains some plasticity.
Environmental and emotional enrichment, nutritional supplementation, and brain re-programming are being developed as tools to help compensate for childhood damage by reducing potentially harmful genetic messages which might otherwise predict a life of serious mental and physical illness.