Traumatic stress and human DNA methylation: A critical review

Christiaan H. Vinkers, Aimilia Lydia Kalafateli, Bart P. Rutten, Martien J. Kas, Zachary Kaminsky, Jonathan D. Turner, Marco P. Boks*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

84 Citations (Scopus)


Animal studies have identified persistent and functional effects of traumatic stress on the epigenome. This review discusses the clinical evidence for trauma-induced changes in DNA methylation across the life span in humans. Studies are reviewed based on reports of trauma exposure during the prenatal period (13 studies), early life (20 studies), and adulthood (ten studies). Even though it is apparent that traumatic stress influences the human epigenome, there are significant drawbacks in the existing human literature. These include a lack of longitudinal studies, methodological heterogeneity, selection of tissue type, and the influence of developmental stage and trauma type on methylation outcomes. These issues are discussed in order to present a way in which future studies can gain more insight into the functional relevance of trauma-related DNA methylation changes. Epigenetic studies investigating the detrimental effects of traumatic stress have great potential for an improved detection and treatment of trauma-related psychiatric disorders.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)593-608
Number of pages16
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2015


  • DNA methylation
  • childhood abuse
  • early life adversity
  • epigenetics
  • humans
  • traumatic stress


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