Genetic Scars of the Holocaust: Children Suffer Too
The Holocaust is a crime that never seems to quit. Even as the ranks of survivors grow smaller each year, the impact of that dark passage in history continues to be to be felt. And it’s not just the victims who feel the effects; it’s their children too.
Psychologists have long been intrigued by the emotional profile of so-called second-generation Holocaust survivors. Parents who lived through the camps were forever changed by the horrors they witnessed. In the 21st century, many — probably most — would be recognized as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Back then, the absence of such a diagnosis meant the absence of effective treatments too. As a result, a generation of children grew up in homes in which one, and sometimes both, parents were battling untold emotional demons at the same time they were going about the difficult business of trying to raise happy kids. No surprise, they weren’t always entirely successful. (See photos of Auschwitz after 65 years.)
Over the years, a large body of work has been devoted to studying PTSD symptoms in second-generation survivors and it has found signs of the condition in their behavior and even their blood — with higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, for example. The assumption — a perfectly reasonable one — was always that these symptoms were essentially learned. Grow up with parents afflicted by the mood swings, irritability, jumpiness and hypervigilance typical of PTSD and you’re likely to wind up stressed and high-strung yourself. (See more on how children are also vulnerable to posttraumatic stress.)
Now, a new paper adds another dimension to the science, suggesting that it’s not just a second generation’s emotional profile that can be affected by a parent’s trauma, it may be their genes too. The study, just published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, was conducted by a team headed by neurobiologist Isabelle Mansuy of the University of Zurich. What she and her colleagues set out to explore went deeper than genetics in general, focusing instead on epigenetics — how genes change as a result of environmental factors in ways that can be passed onto the next generation.