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October 2002Vol. 3, No. 8Genetics and the Effects of Child Abuse

The results of a recent New Zealand study published in the journal Science and summarized in the Washington Post indicate "...a certain form of gene that breaks down neurotransmitters makes men more likely to be violent, but only if they were maltreated as children." The study helps explain why most men emerge from childhood accidents or violence emotionally unscathed, while some never seem to recover and become violent adults. Environment plays a critical role. In the absence of abuse, this particular gene form did not make men more likely to be violent or antisocial. When there was a history of abuse, however, the study showed higher rates of violent behavior later in life.

The study followed 442 boys in New Zealand from birth to age 26. Of the boys who were maltreated and had the particular gene form, 85 percent became antisocial. These children made up only 12 percent of the study population but later accounted for 44 percent of violent crime. It is not yet known how many men in the general population may have this form of the gene.

While more studies are needed to confirm the findings, researchers are confident the results can be put to good use. Knowing which abused children are most at risk, for example, could help social workers and therapists target more directed intervention strategies.

The Washington Post article, "Study Links a Gene to Impact of Child Abuse," appeared in the August 2 edition of the Post and can be found at