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How Do We Remember Things That Didn’t Happen To Us? Symposium On Intergenerational Trauma

Have you ever wondered whether or not certain less genotypical traits such as mental illness, anxiety, or PTSD can have intergenerational effects? Deputy Editor Vivian Zhou is a Neuro major, so it was only appropriate that she went to cover the symposium on this topic. 

The Center for Science and Society at Columbia University hosted a symposium on Monday at the Italian Academy on the topic of intergenerational trauma. How do we remember things that didn’t happen to us? Researchers have found traces of traumatic experiences from previous generations, and this symposium served to give an interdisciplinary perspective on the issue. The topic is being studied in neuroscience, but also has been discussed in anthropology, sociology, and more. There were three speakers at the event: Professor Frances Champagne, a psychology professor at University of Texas at Austin; Professor Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Professor Gabriele M. Schwab, professor of English and comparative literature at University of California, Irvine.

Professor Frances Champagne spoke first, mostly of the mechanisms of intergenerational trauma and its effect on a molecular neuroscience level. Lasting neurobiological changes are due to interactions between genes and the environment. Although genes have lasting effects on phenotypes, the phenotypes can vary based on life experience. The science of epigenetics is an important mechanism in how genes are regulated. For those who don’t know, epigenetics is a method used to turn genes on or off through epigenetic changes- it is very precise and effectively measured. One epigenetic method is DNA methylation, which attaches a methyl group to the DNA and typically turn off genes– these genes remain in a silent state for the rest of the subject’s life. Epigenetic processes vary in individuals and are important in differentiating different cells, but what about at the level of organisms? Professor Champagne studied monozygotic twins and found that they were not genetically identical epigenetically, and the older that the twins were, the more differences they had. This implies that variation emerges across the lifespan, and that perhaps variation is in response to environmental conditions. She considers maternal experiences in utero as well as post natal experiences that shape epigenetic outcomes, which in turn shapes bio-behavioral outcomes. Experiences of the mother can also lead to changes in interaction between mothers and offspring. Champagne specifically looked at stressors and the ability to adapt to stressors through examining the DNA methylation in the hippocampus in rodents. She found that when low maternal care was received, there was higher methylation and offspring were less able to react to stressors. Female rodents that received a lot of maternal care engaged in higher maternal care for their own offspring. Epigenetic changes in estrogen receptors were also studies, and these changes were passed down generations. Prenatal maternal distress leads to epigenetic variation, which influences fetal development and infant outcomes. These stressors can also affect the placenta and impact fetal development. Maternal psychosocial stresses correlated with increases in DNA methylation of a gene in the placenta important for regulating stress. Other than stressors, toxins in our environment such as bisphenol A can also induce lasting changes and epigenetic effects. Champagne uses a mouse model to study this. Male fetuses were exposed to bisphenol A in utero which led to genes being epigenetically silenced. Similar patterns are found in humans. Studies on the intergeneration effects uses a holistic view with mothers and fathers.

Professor Rachel Yehuda spoke next, and she aimed to give more of a biological perspective on the issue. Parental trauma can induce symptoms of PTSD and specific fears, but they can also be beneficial in creating threat detectors, better coping strategies, and better empathy. Her research is based on Holocaust survivors and their offspring. In the process of her research, she found that Holocaust survivors met the diagnostic criteria as many as 45 years after the event, but had not gotten treatment because there was no specialized program. She and others decided to develop a treatment program for Holocaust survivors, but in actuality it was the offspring of survivors who self identified for treatment. They reported that they felt damaged, guilty, anxious, had intrusions of Holocaust-related imagery, problems separating from or confronting parents, burden of compensating for past losses, and messed up interpersonal relationships. Yehuda found that Holocaust offspring were more likely to have PTSD, depression, and anxiety if they had a parent with PTSD. They showed neuroendocrine and molecular changes, including epigenetic alterations in the glucocorticoid– a cortisol receptor. She measured the GR1F promotor region of the glucocorticoid receptor gene in the offspring and found more methylation when the parents had PTSD. She also studied the effect of trauma on gametes– trauma occurring at any time post-puberty in males can be transmitted to the offspring through sperm, and prepuberty effects on oocytes are more likely to be repressed in offspring for females. She also studied women who were pregnant and had to escape the building during 9/11, and found that those with PTSD had lower cortisol levels, as did their babies. Her research has implications that epigenetics provide a mechanism for improving responses to environmental conditions and that these changes are context dependent– whether epigenetic change improves or not depends on the environment.

Professor Gabriele Schwab spoke next. Since she is a comparative literature professor, her lecture was based less on science and more on English. She wrote a poem about her experience with brain injury called “The year he lost his words”. She spoke about how her sister and her friend’s wife both recently suffered from brain injuries–aphasia and temporal lobe dementia– and how they have been impacted for it. She examines the idea of how neuroscience is the study of the brain versus the self and whether or not brain damage also kills the “self”. Her sister suffered from temporal lob dementia, and although she can no longer speak, her brain is still vibrant and she can listen to conversations and music. So, Professor Schwab has been writing stories for her, to offer her a replacement voice for the one she lost.

The lectures were followed by a discussion and a time for questions. Overall, the symposium offered a dynamic view on the topic of intergenerational trauma.

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