The potential of epigenetic methods to provide evidence of torture

  • Paula Suárez-López Human Rights Centre, University of Essex, Colchester
Keywords: severity of suffering, trauma, epigenetics, DNA methylation, torture biomarkers


Introduction: The last five decades have wit- nessed a transition from brutal forms of physi- cal torture to other physical and psychological methods that do not leave marks on the body. Providing evidence of these types of torture is often a challenge. Finding biological markers of torture would potentially contribute to solve this problem.

Methods: Scientific literature review.

Results: Methods to analyse certain biological marks present in the genetic material (the DNA), called epigenetic marks, have been developed in recent years. These marks can change in response to environmental factors, but these changes do not alter the genetic information contained in the DNA. Changes in epigenetic marks have been correlated with traumatic stress. Given that torture is an extreme form of trauma, this article argues that torture may also be associated with epigenetic changes.

Discussion: Epigenetic methods offer a new tool that might be useful for the medico-legal documentation of cases of torture. Given that these methods have not been used for this purpose yet, they should be tested. Whether they have potential to contribute to determine the severity of suffering, establish a severity threshold or design strategies for the rehabilitation of torture survivors is discussed. The advantages and limitations of these methods, as well as ethical implications, must be taken into account.


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How to Cite
Suárez-López, P. (2020). The potential of epigenetic methods to provide evidence of torture. Torture Journal, 30(2), 19-34.