Epigenetics research suggests anxiety may have genetic markers
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Epigenetics research suggests anxiety may have genetic markers

"Is everything OK?"

When my children ring me, this is how I answer the phone. There is none of the playfulness I overhear when other women speak to their adult children. It's the same when they travel. I worry, endlessly watching for dots on messages. If the phone rings, I imagine the worst.

Survivors of Auschwitz shortly after the concentration camp's liberation in 1945.

Survivors of Auschwitz shortly after the concentration camp's liberation in 1945.Credit:Reuters

For years, when talking to friends who'd been Australians for generations, I'd explain this away as being a "born worrier". I'd just laugh it off – and restrain myself from dashing over to save their children from the risks of the trampoline.

The truth was a little more complex. I may not have been a born worrier – but by the time I was old enough to recognise my place in my family, I had the idea that life was filled with terror, with unpredictability. That in all circumstances, one must be always on the lookout for possible attacks.

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My parents survived the Holocaust. My aunt survived a death camp. My father survived a labour camp, my mother ran from country to country and eventually met my father in a refugee camp in Austria. Most of the rest of their families died in concentration camps, certainly that was the fate of all my grandparents.

How your parents behave towards you when they have survived that adolescence, such a young adulthood, is irrevocably shaped by those circumstances. The effects of being a Holocaust survivor include survival guilt, but there is so much more than that. A wide variety of researchers have documented the many and varied psychiatric symptoms of those who lived, and their children. My parents were so anxious every time I left the house – and god forbid, I should ever go to a sleepover at the home of someone who wasn't Jewish. I let my kids go to sleepovers but slept with the phone right next to my bed, the ring tone up loud.

New research from Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry in the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in the United States, has been hailed as proof that psychological burdens of parents might affect their children not only as part of their upbringing, but that a form of molecular imprint might also be transferred. The main finding in her paper is that in her study of Holocaust survivors and their offspring, there are distinct chemical tags on a gene involved in stress responses. That research is called epigenetics* – it's not the study of the genes themselves or the code in them, but of chemical "bookmarks" attached to them.

Many people have responded to these findings by saying the end is nigh, that the epigenetic changes in their childrens could only have been caused by the parents' exposure to the Holocaust. That we can never escape trauma.

But, although both generations differed in the epigenetic marks of the gene compared to control subjects, the change in the parents is the deadset opposite of what is seen in the children. Besides, as Yehuda herself says, the researchers can only show correlation; whether the epigenetic changes actually contribute to differences in psychological make-up of individuals remains to be proven. The study was set up to compare demographically similar groups so that only the Holocaust experience differed between affected families and controls. There are of course many possible variables.

"The message is not that we are damaged forever as a result of things that we experienced," she says. "It could be that the offspring change is the reaction to the parental biology ... the last thing you should say is that we are stuck, what we have is a way of adapting to our environment."

Is the study proof of anything except finding a higher density of a chemical tag among the parental group and then a lower density of this tag in the same genetic region among the offspring group?

Not exactly, which Yehuda is quick to make clear.

Thomas Preiss​, a professor of genome science at the Australian National University familiar with the molecular basis of epigenetics, explains that the Yehuda study investigated a small number of subjects and that even with those chemical changes, the epigenetic changes, you can't generalise to an entire population.

"It's a disposition that will be apparent in large numbers; but on any individual? You can't say there has to be any effect," he says. "The effect is much more subtle ... the social component of a situation like that is likely to be very strong.

"Even on the side of the perpetrators these things have a strong and lasting impact, a psychological effect which may take time over generations to work through. Epigenetics won't be the complete explanation."

And Marnie Blewitt, a laboratory head in the division of molecular medicine at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, says that any definitive research in this area needs to be more statistically powered. Many more subjects. Much more data. She is also very wary of any interpretation which encourages the ordinary reader to imagine that their destiny is predetermined.

"What can't be ruled out is that the group was genetically different in the first place," she says.

The conversations with Blewitt, Preiss and Yehuda cheer me up. Perhaps I won't pass my intensity on to my children. Maybe the scientists don't understand how much that worries people like me.

Finally, I talk to Anna Rosner Blay​, whose 1998 book Sister Sister explained to me why I felt the way I did. She says friends have been sending her the reports of the Yehuda research; and that it would not surprise her to know that there was some genetic impact.

"We pick up a lot from our parents, that predisposition to be a worrier," she says.

And when she tells me how she feels, day to day, I recognise this feeling as if it is my own.

"I don't know if the glass is half-full or half-empty but it is too close to the edge of the table."

*Many thanks to @realscientists which orchestrated a one-afternoon crash course in epigenetics.

Twitter: @jennaprice or email jennapricejournalist@gmail.com

Jenna Price is a Fairfax columnist, and an academic at the University of Technology, Sydney.

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