Children of Holocaust Survivors Inherit PTSD-Related Genetic Changes

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Numerous studies have examined how the effects of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been passed on to the children of Holocaust survivors. New research now indicates that transmission of these traits is passed on through genes from the parents of survivors to children.

So-called “intergenerational trauma” has been identified in academic literature before, but Rachel Yehuda, PhD, director of the traumatic stress studies division at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, and colleagues demonstrate that “epigenetic changes,” or changes in the genome, can be passed on from parent to child.

Yehuda and her team examined 80 children that had at least one parent who was in the Holocaust and 15 children whose parents did not have such exposure. They took blood samples for analysis of GR (glucocorticoid receptor)-1F promoter methylation. Glucocorticoid receptor are involved in gene transcription and methylation is a biochemical process by which a gene’s expression can be altered.

In the absence of maternal PTSD, offspring with paternal PTSD showed higher GR-1F promoter methylation, whereas offspring with both maternal and paternal PTSD showed lower methylation, the researchers reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

In an accompanying editorial, David Spiegel, MD, of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University of Medicine, California, explained that “maternal PTSD seems to neutralize or override the effect of paternal PTSD.”

Spiegel adds that the study poses additional questions. Since the effect of parental PTSD went into different directions, there might be similar interactions in genome-wide profiling of gene expression. Also, it is also unclear whether epigenetic transmission would occur over the next generation.

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Children of Holocaust Survivors Inherit PTSD-Related Genetic Changes

Differential effects of maternal and paternal posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been observed in adult offspring of Holocaust survivors in both glucocorticoid receptor sensitivity and vulnerability to psychiatric disorder.

The authors examined the relative influences of maternal and paternal PTSD on DNA methylation of the exon 1F promoter of the glucocorticoid receptor (GR-1F) gene (NR3C1) in peripheral blood mononuclear cells and its relationship to glucocorticoid receptor sensitivity in Holocaust offspring.

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