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Inherited Stress

New Yorkers just marked the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. As many of the rescue workers deal with the physical illnesses they contracted from working at the attack site, many survivors are also dealing with mental trauma, largely post-traumatic stress disorder. Among the people directly exposed to the attacks were some 1,700 pregnant women, says the Guardian's Mo Costandi, and some of those women went on to develop PTSD. New epigenetic research shows that these women may have passed some of that stress to their children. In one study, researchers from Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York recruited 38 women who were pregnant on 9/11 and were either at or near the World Trade Center, and went on to develop PTSD. The team measured their cortisol levels and found that the women with PTSD had significantly lower levels of cortisol than those without PTSD, and that the children of those women had lower levels of the hormone than other children. In addition, the team showed that the children of the traumatized women exhibit an increased distress response when shown novel stimuli, and that those with the most distress are ones born shortly after the attacks. "Research published over the past 10 years or so suggests that this probably occurs by epigenetic mechanisms," Costandi adds. "More recently, [the Mount Sinai team] examined gene expression patterns in 40 individuals who were similarly exposed to the World Trade Centre attacks, and identified 16 genes that are differentially expressed between those with and those without PTSD." Further, a separate study from the University of Pennsylvania shows that epigenetic markers can be transmitted through two generations of mice, Costandi says, which suggests that the children born to mothers of 9/11 could pass the trauma down to their own children.

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