Trauma Lingers in Body Chemistry for Generations

It has long been observed that the children of the traumatized often bear some of the scars of their parents. While this no doubt has a lot to do with social conditioning, a recent study has found that there is a biological basis as well. You can listen a PBS report here, or view an excerpt of the transcript below.

Dr. Rachel Yehuda, director of Mount Sinai’s Traumatic Stress Studies Division led the study. Her team interviewed and drew blood from 32 sets of [Holocaust] survivors and their children, focusing on a gene called FKBP5

RACHEL YEHUDA, ICAHN SCHOOL OF MEDICINE AT MT. SINAI: “We already know that this is a gene that contributes to risk for depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”.

STEPHEN FEE: Yehuda noticed a pattern among the Holocaust survivors called an “epigenetic change” — not a change in the gene itself, but rather a change in a chemical marker attached to it.

RACHEL YEHUDA, ICAHN SCHOOL OF MEDICINE AT MT. SINAI: “When we looked at their own children, their children also had an epigenetic change in the same spot on a stress-related gene”.

STEPHEN FEE: “What does that suggest?”

RACHEL YEHUDA, ICAHN SCHOOL OF MEDICINE AT MT. SINAI: “Well, in the first generation, in the Holocaust survivor, it suggests that there has been an adaptation or a response to a horrendous environmental event, and in the second generation it suggests that there has also been a response of the offspring to this parental trauma”.

STEPHEN FEE: Which means children of Holocaust survivors like Sonneberg could be more likely to develop stress or anxiety disorders.

Though their study was small, Yehuda and her team controlled for any early trauma the survivors’ children may have experienced themselves.

It remains unclear how exactly the effect of a traumatic experience is inherited by children. This study simply shows that there is some sort of biological means through psychological stress — namely its impact on genes — continues to persist down the genetic line. Similar studies involving the children of famine survivors found that the effects of malnutrition persisted for at least two generations, while those born to survivors of terrorist attacks also have unusually high levels of stress.

Needless to say, the implications are clear: trauma is not limited to those directly affected by it, but can persist in unseen ways that impact entire societies for years. This can go a long way towards explaining why certain oppressed groups seem perpetually mired in despair and social collapse, or why countries ravaged by war take decades to recover and normalize. The study also suggests that the world’s current catastrophes — the wars in Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen, the high rate of homicide in El Salvador and Venezuela, the millions of unseen instances of domestic abuse — will continue to haunt the world long after they get resolved.

Hopefully, a better understanding of both the psychological and genetic factors of trauma will allow for the creation of more comprehensive treatments and therapies, perhaps even medications that can target the specific epigenetic contributors. This is also an important reminder that policies seeking to address the social, political, and economic grievances of historically marginalized groups should take into account the psychological and medical dimensions as well; even if the conditions positively change — as is the case for children born well after a trauma event — the damage remains deeply entrenched and unseen.

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