A new study suggests that childhood trauma might significantly increase women’s risk of developing multiple sclerosis (MS) later in life.
The research found that childhood trauma can modify the immune system, potentially heightening the risk of autoimmune disease. The strongest associations between childhood trauma and MS were for sexual abuse and for experiencing several categories of abuse. Moreover, abuse, neglect, and chaotic home life were attributable to an elevated risk of poor mental and physical health in adulthood.
The full research findings are published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry.
Long term effects of childhood trauma
To perform their study, the researchers employed data from the nationally representative Norwegian Mother, Father, and Child cohort study that included around 78,000 pregnant women who enrolled between 1999 and 2008. The health of the women in the study was analysed up until the end of 2018.
The team identified childhood trauma before the age of 18 from questionnaire responses and confirmed diagnoses of MS from linked national health registry data and hospital records. From the cohort, 14,477 women stated they had experienced childhood abuse, and 63,520 said they did not. Additionally, the individuals with a history of childhood trauma were more likely to be smokers or former smokers, which is a known risk factor for MS, obesity, and depressive symptoms.
During the monitoring period, 300 women were diagnosed with MS, with 71 (24%) saying they had suffered abuse as children. In contrast, 14,406 (19%) of the participants in the study who experienced childhood trauma did not go on to develop MS.
Subsequently, the team accounted for influential factors such as smoking, obesity, education, and household income, finding that women who were abused as children were more likely to be diagnosed with MS.
The association was most significant for sexual abuse (65% increased risk), emotional abuse 40% increased risk), and physical abuse (31% increased risk). MS risk was further exacerbated for women who experienced two categories of abuse (66% heightened risk), which increases to 93% if they suffer all three categories of childhood trauma.
The team found similar results after excluding women who may have been in the early phase of MS. Furthermore, the association also persisted when women who had already been diagnosed with MS at the study’s inception were included.
Due to this being an observational study, the team cannot establish a cause. Additionally, the researchers stated that other environmental factors, such as diet, levels of physical activity, and parental smoking, were not accounted for and could be independently important. The team also did not have crucial information on how long the childhood trauma lasted, the age it started, and what levels of emotional support the individuals received.
The team also acknowledged that there might be a plausible explanation for the associations found between childhood trauma and MS, ad childhood abuse can alter brain and glandular signalling (the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis), which can cause a pro-inflammatory state.
The researchers concluded: “Better understanding of the risk factors and timing of risk exposures may open doors for prevention and give further insight to disease mechanisms.”