Health Blog

The physical scars of emotional trauma

February 5, 2009

Elizabeth Shirtcliff doesn’t want anyone to forget about the children of Katrina. The University of New Orleans psychologist warns that kids who have been through a traumatic event, like Hurricane Katrina, may suffer from lasting damage to their physical health.

Like adolescents who had been victims of physical abuse, those who had spent time in orphanages as young children had higher levels of antibodies against the herpes simplex virus type 1 than a control population, Shirtcliff found. Most Americans carry this virus, but we don’t produce antibodies against it unless we have a weakened immune system. Shritcliff and colleagues at her former institution, the University of Wisconsin-Madison published their findings last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Emotional trauma resulting from living in an orphanage causes prolonged stress, but Shirtcliff believes a single traumatic event could lead to similar health impacts. “Even if you have a single event, the repercussions of that event are long lasting and chronic,” she says.

Shirtcliff is  now planning research on children who are survivors of Hurricane Katrina, and expects to see a similar immune system response. While there is evidence of behavioral problems that result from this kind of trauma, it is easy to blame the child, Shirtcliff says. “But,” she says, “I think that by documenting that these events and these experiences have actually gotten under their skin to change the way their biology functions is important.”

While possibly being emotionally traumatized, the children are also physically different than their peers, and their emotional difficulties may be linked with these health impacts, Shirtcliff explains. “It’s particularly the kids that have the biological changes that are the most likely to show the emotional and behavioral changes.”

Also on Scienceline:

Speaking from the Brain
A psychology researcher explores how children develop language skills.

No Rest for the Young and Weary
A New York psychologist sheds light on the realities of terminal illness in American children.

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About the Author

Genevra Pittman spent her undergrad studying Biology, which took her everywhere from the beaches of Malaysia to basement hamster labs in suburban Philadelphia. She also pursued her passion for journalism by editing and writing for her college paper’s sports section. She now reports on health and the environment and has written for Reuters Health, The Boston Globe, and OnEarth, the magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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