Penn State conference looks at long-term effects of child abuse

Expert researchers from across the world gathered Wednesday and Thursday to showcase recent progress related to child maltreatment and other forms of trauma and chronic stress at Penn State’s fourth annual Conference on Child Protection and Well-Being.

The conference, which was held at the Nittany Lion Inn, presented the long-term effects of child abuse on endocrinology, immunology, brain development and genomics.

“I hope that there’s an exchange of information and ideas that will prompt additional research into the causes and effects of child maltreatment,” said Frank Vandervort, a representative of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children.

Bekh Bradley-Davino, a professor at Emory University, spoke about how early child abuse can lead to mental health problems later in life.

“Multiple studies demonstrate that environmental factors, particularly stress and trauma which occur during childhood and adolescence, are robust predictors of risk for many psychiatric disorders,” Bradley-Davino said.

His findings concluded that an abused child aged zero through 5 is more likely to develop problems later in life than any other age group. Post-traumatic stress disorder and depression are two of the main complications that are likely to arise from early child abuse.

Idan Shalev, a professor of behavioral health at Penn State, talked about how bullying and physical maltreatment shorten the length of a person’s telomeres in his or her DNA.

A telomere is a gene in the DNA that shortens every time the cell divides. When the telomere gets too short, it dies. Shortening of telomeres is usually associated with aging and cancer.

Shalev displayed multiple studies that concluded children who are abused or bullied have considerably shorter telomeres than children who are not.

The Conference on Child Protection and Well-Being was created in 2012 after the Jerry Sandusky scandal prompted Penn State to become “a leader in the research, prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse,” according to then-president Rodney Erickson.