Children of Holocaust Survivors Inherit Genetic Impacts of PTSD

Holocaust Memorial Day on the 27th Jan, commemorates the deaths of those who suffered under Nazi persecution in Europe, as well as subsequent genocides in other parts of the world. In the 72 intervening years following the European Holocaust, central Europe has largely learned to cope with the emotional and societal impacts that darken its history. In view of the upcoming Memorial Day, an article published in September 2016, which also examines the biological impact of the inhumane cruelty that occurred in 1940s Europe, seems appropriate to discuss.

The team, lead by Dr Yehuda, set out to study changes to the genome, known as epigenetic changes, that occur in response to PTSD and may be passed on to offspring. Unsurprisingly, intergenerational stress has not been studied in humans before, due to ethical considerations.

The group looked at one gene in particular, known as FKBP5, whose resulting protein functionally regulates another protein known as glucocorticoid receptor. This gene has also been identified as a target of PTSD-induced epigenetic changes. The change to the genome under investigation is known as methylation, and is the addition of a chemical group to the genome effecting changes in the activity of the gene.

The results of the study show that DNA methylation occurs at the same location of the FKBP5 gene in Holocaust survivors and their offspring. However, while survivors had higher levels of methylation compared to the control group, the offspring had lower levels compared to their control group.

Through statistical analysis of the data, the results suggest a correlation of parental PTSD and DNA methylation on offspring DNA methylation. The mechanism of this transmission is as yet unknown and will certainly be an interesting aspect to study in future. By understanding how mental health and stress influence not only the genome of the affected person, but also their offspring, disorders such as PTSD may be predictable and rapidly treated.

While the results of this study are unquestionably valuable in pursuing understanding of how environment and genetics interact with one another, we cannot forget the trials that the participants suffered through, allowing this research to be carried out on a large scale. The despicable acts carried out in concentration camps have afforded scientists the chance for knowledge and understanding, and ultimately the opportunity to develop treatments for those suffering from PTSD. One can only hope that these circumstances will never again occur.

About Danny Schnitzler

Danny Schnitzler is working as research assistant at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland on the role of oxytocin in feeding behaviour, while applying for PhD funding. Her scientific passion is neuroendocrinology, which looks at the role of hormones in the brain. In particular, she has an interest in how sex hormones act on neurophysiolgy. Outside of the lab, Danny is involved in addressing the gender imbalance in many aspects of STEM, public engagement and science communication. She also does "normal" fun things like going for runs, reading books and petting dogs.

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