Study: Childhood Trauma May Impact Development of Multiple Sclerosis

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study suggests that childhood trauma could impact both the development and response to treatment of multiple sclerosis later in life.
  • Previous studies have found a link between childhood trauma and chronic conditions.
  • Managing stress and other mental health issues is essential to taking care of a chronic illness.

In a new study, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that childhood trauma may have an impact on both the development and response to treatment of multiple sclerosis (MS) later in life.

MS is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks and destroys the protective covering of nerve cells of the brain, spinal cord, and/or eyes. The age of onset for MS tends to typically be between 20 and 40 years old, although this can vary.

The study found that mice who experienced stress when they were young were more likely to activate immune-cell receptors. The January study was published in the journal Nature Communications. Previous studies have already shown a correlation on how stress can exacerbate existing cases of MS.

“What’s new here is the idea that stress from childhood could affect your predisposition to autoimmune diseases years and even decades later in life,” Jeffrey Kane, MD, a pediatric neurologist and neurophysiologist at Child Neurology Consultants of Austin who was not involved in the study, tells Verywell. 

What This Means For You

Trauma can impact multiple aspects of a person’s life, including their physical health. Trying to address trauma and stress in your life could potentially help you manage chronic conditions.

The Research

Researchers studied this trauma response in mice by comparing mice who were briefly separated from their mothers and given a saline injection and those who stayed with their mothers and did not receive the injection. They found that mice who experienced this trauma were more likely to develop experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE).

EAE is a common experimental model for MS which features the disease's key components, including inflammation. Most drugs used to currently treat MS in humans have been developed and tested on EAE models.

EAE models do not, however, translate exactly to MS in humans, with one major difference being that T-cells in MS are activated in a different compartment than in EAE’s.

The study found that the mice that developed EAE had a prolonged release of the stress hormone norepinephrine, which help’s a person’s body prepare for action. Because these receptors were active for a long period of time, they were then less equipped to fight off the inflammation from EAE.

The mice who developed EAE in this study from stress also did not respond well to interferon beta-1a, an intramuscular injection often used to treat people with various forms of MS.

While this research indicates that there may be a connection between childhood trauma and MS, Kane cautions against viewing childhood trauma as a risk factor for MS. “Obviously most kids who have emotional trauma don’t develop MS,” he says. “And most people with MS have not had serious emotional trauma in childhood. You have to be careful in drawing a direct connection but certainly, the risk based on this evidence is increased.”

Kane also says that while childhood trauma could be a risk factor, parents should not necessarily be alarmed. “Having a bad experience in kindergarten or first grade, that’s probably not enough to increase their risk [for MS],” he says. “We need to protect our kids, of course, but we don't want to go too far the other way and never let them experience life.”

Stress and Chronic Health Conditions

Previous studies have explored the link between childhood trauma and chronic conditions. A 2010 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology previously indicated that childhood trauma could contribute to chronic illness in adulthood, with mental health and socioeconomic status also playing a role. This study surveyed data from a 2005 Canadian Community Health Survey and found that more traumatic childhood events correlated with increased chronic conditions.

People who experience trauma might be at a higher risk for developing certain conditions. “We’ve known for a long time that people who have gone through trauma have an increased risk for rheumatoid arthritis,” Adam Kaplin, MD, PhD, chief scientific officer of MyMD Pharmaceuticals, tells Verywell. “Early life trauma has led predisposed people to specific health consequences that seem to fall into immune- and hyperactivity-related conditions.”

Research from 2013 published in the journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness found that 30% of isolated or quarantined children experienced posttraumatic stress disorder. Kaplin wonders how trauma from the COVID-19 pandemic will affect immune-related conditions long-term.

“Kids are clearly being traumatized, and their rates of anxiety and depression are going through the roof out of proportion to older people,” he says. “Will we see a rise in the rate of autoimmune diseases as a result of the fallout from going through COVID-19 for such a sustained and long period of time?"

Addressing Stress and Trauma

Whether a person has trauma from childhood or from adulthood, managing mental health can be an important part of managing MS or a different chronic condition. Research suggests that inflammation from conditions like MS can increase people’s risk of depression and even suicidality.

There are also certain mental health conditions that are more prevalent in people with MS than in the general publication. A 2007 study found the following to be more common in people with MS:

  • Major depressive disorder
  • Any anxiety disorder
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Substance abuse disorders

Kane says that people with chronic health conditions need to be aware of the potential long-term effects of not addressing stress. “I think all people with autoimmune conditions need to factor that in how they're going to live their lives trying to minimize physical, emotional stresses,” he says. 

Some ways that people can address their stress in a healthy way, as recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, include:

  • Take deep breathes and meditate
  • Try to eat well-balanced meals
  • Exercise on a regular basis
  • Get enough sleep every not
  • Avoid excessive use of substances like alcohol
  • Continue to take care of your health as recommended by your doctor
  • Talk with others about how you are feeling
9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coping with Stress.

By Julia Métraux
Julia Métraux is a health and culture writer specializing in disability.