Children of survivors of extremely stressful life events face adjustment challenges of their own, as has been most carefully studied among the children of Nazi Death Camp survivors. This "intergenerational" transmission of stress response has been studied predominantly from the psychological perspective. However, recent research points to biological contributions as well. Indeed, a new study published in the November 1, 2013 issue of Biological Psychiatry demonstrates that offspring born to stressed mothers show stress-induced changes at birth, with altered behavior and gender-related differences that continue into adulthood. "The notion that biological traits that are not coded by the sequence of DNA can be transmitted across generations is the focus of a field of research called epigenetics. This new paper implicates epigenetic regulation of a well-studied contributor to stress response, CRF1 (corticotropin-releasing factor type 1), in the intergenerational transmission of patterns of stress response," said Dr. John Krystal, Editor ofBiological Psychiatry, who was not involved in the study. The researchers, led by Dr. Inna Gaisler-Salomon at University of Haifa in Israel, were interested in how stress modulates behavior and gene expression across generations. Previous studies in both humans and animals have shown that females exposed to stress even before they conceive can affect their children and even grandchildren. In this study, the researchers looked for a possible mechanism for these effects, focusing on the CRF1 gene. They studied adolescent female rats that went through a mild stress procedure before mating. Stress led to an increase in CRF1 expression in the frontal cortex, a brain region involved in emotional regulation and decision-making.
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