Can psychological trauma be passed down to children?

Dr Joanne Ryan, Head of the Biological Neuropsychiatry and Dementia Unit, is in the midst of an exciting project exploring epigenetic changes that affect mental health, and how these may be passed down through generations. The research builds on previous studies describing behavioural and clinical problems in the children of Holocaust survivors which results from altered gene function.

Genes are the chemical instruction manual for all the proteins our bodies make. Chemical changes that directly alter a gene’s coding are often called mutations; epigenetic changes are chemical changes that don’t directly alter the genetic template, but rather influence the way the corresponding protein is made. This may include completely blocking any manufacturing of the protein, reducing or increasing the rate at which the protein is made, or changing the conditions under which a protein is created.

Joanne has conducted previous research exploring the foetal epigenome during pregnancy, and whether maternal hormone differences arising from maternal stress and depression can influence a child’s propensity to develop mental health problems later in life.

This current study involves data gathered from women suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of sexual violence during the Balkans War in the 1990s, and their children. Funding for the project came via the British Embassy in Kosovo, and Joanne has been collaborating with the researchers at the Danish Institute against Torture (DIGNITY) and the Kosova Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims (KRCT). The latter is an independent, non-governmental and non-profit organisation that was founded in 1999 with the mission to provide treatment and rehabilitation for Kosovar torture victims.

Joanne says, “I’m really excited about this project and the potential impacts it could have in improving the lives of victims of major war trauma and their offspring. Identifying the underlying biological processes whereby the negative effects of trauma are passed across generations is a key step towards stopping the intergenerational transmission of poor mental health.”

The local Kosovan group has coordinated data collection, assessing the women for their experiences during the war, presence of PTSD, depression and anxiety, and gathering biological samples from the women and their children. These biological samples are soon to be analysed in the Netherlands, with Joanne and her team interpreting the results in the coming months.

The results will be made public at the World Summit of the Prevention of Sexual Violence in Conflict in the UK this November. The conference is a compelling mix of science and social activism, and Joanne is looking forward to interacting directly with people that stand to benefit from research such as this.

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