Trauma in childhood leads to empathy in adulthood

It's not just a case of "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

Trauma in childhood leads to empathy in adulthood

  • A new study suggests children who endure trauma grow up to be adults with more empathy than others.
  • The effect is not universal, however. Only one kind of empathy was greatly effected.
  • The study may lead to further investigations into how people cope with trauma and lead to new ways to help victims bounce back.

A new study published in PLOS One suggests that enduring a traumatic event in childhood can lead to higher levels of empathy as an adult. While it doesn't apply to every form of empathy, it does show how hardships can be overcome and even turned into growth opportunities.

How did they find that out?

The first experiment asked 387 of adults if they had experienced childhood trauma, such as the death of a close friend or family member, a divorce in the family, being subjected to violence, or sexual abuse. Subjects were then asked to fill out an EQ quiz to determine how empathetic they were. A second survey involved 442 participants and used the IRI test to measure empathy levels.

But while both studies found that the test subjects who had endured trauma showed traits of affective empathy, defined as "the ability respond to another person's mental state with an appropriate emotion," only the second test showed them scoring higher than those who didn't suffer trauma on cognitive empathy, explained by the researchers as "the ability to understand another's thoughts and feelings."

The authors suggested that the differences between the two tests used might account for this, but they also proposed that cognitive empathy might not be used as frequently when recovering from a traumatic event as affective empathy.

What are the caveats to this study?

The study relies on self-reporting and retrospective accounts of trauma. It also relies on people judging how well they agree with questions like "I can tune into how someone else feels rapidly and intuitively." Lead author David M. Greenberg said that this was an issue and that "Future studies need to use a longitudinal approach."

The authors also warn that they have found a correlation between experiencing trauma and having greater levels of empathy. While they propose that correlation is caused by individuals who can develop these skills to avoid the more horrid effects of childhood trauma, they cannot rule out another mechanism being the cause.

So, does this mean what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger?

The negative side of these experiences shouldn't be overlooked. People who go through these traumas as children are more likely to suffer a range of mental and emotional issues. These findings do suggest, however, that there is a way forward after a traumatic event or a severe loss. Dr. Greenberg summated the findings by saying "Readers of this study should take away that there are pathways to personal growth and resilience after experiencing a trauma."

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
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Why so gassy? Mysterious methane detected on Saturn’s moon

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An impression of NASA's Cassini spacecraft flying through a water plume on the surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Credit: NASA
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CRISPR therapy cures first genetic disorder inside the body

It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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