Immune System Effects of Childhood Trauma

A recent study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that adolescents who were physically abused as children suffered from impaired immune function even though the situation was resolved.

“Even though these children’s environments have changed, physiologically they’re still responding to stress. That can affect their learning and their behavior, and having a compromised immune system is going to affect these children’s health,” says senior author Seth Pollak, a professor of psychology and pediatrics at UW-Madison.

But victims of physical abuse are not the only concern: children that had been adopted by American families from Russian, Romanian and Chinese orphanages showed similar immune system impairment.

“These children began their lives in a stressful environment, but they’re now adolescents, and for a decade, they’ve been living in stable, affluent, loving environments. And yet, their immune systems are compromised as well. In fact, they look just like the physically abused kids,” says Pollak.

The study compared the number of antibodies of HSV-1 (herpes simplex virus type 1) in children who had suffered stress and trauma against children who had comparatively “normal” childhoods. The results found that the children who had been victims of stressors at an early age had higher levels of the HSV-1 antibodies, indicating impaired immune systems. HSV-1 is a strand of herpes that approximately 66% of Americans carry, however, the majority of victims do not even show symptoms (fever blisters and cold sores) unless stress or illness is weakening their immune systems.

This study indicates that trauma as a child not only has ongoing psychological effects on victims, but physiological effects as well. This study does not indicate whether treatment, such as EMDR, can help to alleviate physiological effects as well as psychological effects of trauma and abuse.

For more information, please visit the article “Early Childhood Stress Has Lingering Effects On Health” in ScienceDaily.

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About EMDR

The EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) is a professional association where EMDR practitioners and EMDR researchers seek the highest standards for the clinical use of EMDR. EMDR is an accepted psychotherapy by leading mental health organizations throughout the world for the treatment of a variety of symptoms and conditions. This website provides information to the greater EMDR community including clinicians, researchers, and the public that our members serve.

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