08/12/2013 17:18 GMT | Updated 07/02/2014 05:59 GMT

Why Epigeneticists Are Optimistic About Reducing Child Abuse

Optimism is not a characteristic readily associated with working on child abuse. I've lost count of the number of times people have asked me how I stay positive. A social problem that is universally acknowledged to be of importance, child abuse is nevertheless all too often shrouded in fatalism: it's awful, but what can you do?

Yet those working in child protection do believe that change is possible. Why else would you bother? Not only do you need to recognise the difference that you can make to the lives of individual children, you have to believe that society has the capacity to change. Child abuse is not something that is inevitable or beyond the wit of man to solve, it is a societal problem that society has the power to fix.

Last week I heard this kind of optimism coming from a rather more unexpected source. Professor Moshe Szyf is a pioneer in the world of epigenetics, a man whose feet are firmly planted in the medical world. Not then a man whose head is turned by lofty dreams or woolly ideals. Like any good scientist, he believes great ideas have to be accompanied by rigorous evidence.

And it is hard medical data that is giving Moshe Szyf optimism that child abuse can be reduced. To a non-scientist like me, the world of epigenetics can seem rather baffling and impenetrable. But Moshe Szyf is deft at explaining its future potential to society.

Put simply epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in genes that are not caused by changes in the DNA sequence. The DNA sequence remains unchanged, but the gene 'expression' is controlled through the action of repressor proteins. By understanding how these repressor proteins change over time in response to external factors and the social context, epigenetics is helping to illuminate the process by which what happens to us fundamentally shapes who we are.

Through the study of epigenetics, scientists have identified a clear difference in the genetic expression of individuals who had been abused, and in doing so they are helping to illuminate the process by which childhood trauma can alter an individual's development. Perhaps even more exciting, epigenetics opens up new possibilities for intervention.

By better understanding the damage done by child abuse and neglect, scientists are looking to develop and test interventions that reverse the damage, with the potential to isolate how social, therapeutic or medical interventions can assist with this process. What's more, epigenetics has something to offer those looking to prevent abuse from happening in the first place. By learning how addictive, violent or neglectful behaviours are reflected in genetic expression, scientists are also opening up new avenues for predicting and treating abusive behaviour.

Will epigenetics help us to better understand how to prevent child abuse and neglect? Certainly an optimist like Moshe Szyf thinks so. And I for one hope he's right.