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Childhood Stress Has Long-term Impact on Immunity

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Childhood stress and immunity

According to a new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, childhood stress can have a lasting impact on immunity.

The report, published Jan. 26 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that children who were physically abused, or exposed to stressful home environments in childhood show compromised immunity for years.

The researchers chose to measure how well the stressed children's immune systems handle the herpes virus. They measured HSV-1 antibodies in adolescents with documented history of past physical abuse and stressful home environments. HSV-1 antibodies are produced by the body to suppress herpes virus. The HSV-1 virus is carried by roughly two thirds of Americans.

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Wisconsin psychology professor Chris Coe, an expert on the links between stress and immunity, also participated in the research. Dr. Coe explains, "We can use the control of latent viruses as one way of assessing the competence of the immune system. During times of stress or if the immune system is not appropriately regulated, the herpes virus is more likely to reactivate."

The results of the study showed that children with history of physical abuse, and stress from adverse home environments had high levels of HSV-1 antibodies. Dr. Pollak says, "That is very unfortunate, but it was not surprising. It suggests that children's emotional environments are having widespread repercussions on their health."

Another group of adolescents, who spent time in orphanages in other countries before being adopted, also showed the same compromised immune function. According to senior author Seth Pollak, professor of psychology and pediatrics at UW-Madison, "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."

The researchers conclude that childhood stress... "can really have long-term implications". The current study shows that children exposed to stress experience decreased immune function, years after the stress is removed.

Jan 26 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences