Transmitting stress response patterns across generations

November 4, 2013

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 predominately from the psychological perspective. However, recent research points to biological contributions as well.

Indeed, a new study just published in 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, in the intergenerational transmission of patterns of ," said Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry.

The researchers, led by Dr. Inna Gaisler-Salomon at University of Haifa in Israel, were interested in how stress modulates behavior and 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, they looked for a possible mechanism for these effects, focusing on the CRF1 gene. They studied adolescent 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. Also, there was a dramatic increase in CRF1 expression in the egg cells of stressed females.

In the offspring of stressed female rats, brain CRF1 expression was increased as well, already at birth. "It seems that CRF1 is a marker molecule that tracks the stress experience across generations, perhaps via the germline, and maternal care is minimally involved in this particular effect," explained Gaisler-Salomon.

They also found behavioral differences between the offspring of stressed and non-stressed females, particularly in tests of emotional and exploratory behavior. Interestingly, CRF1 expression was increased in adult daughters of stressed females, but only if the offspring themselves were exposed to stress. This indicates that in adults, CRF1 depends on the mother's stress experiences in combination with the individual's stress experience and their sex.

"So why is this important?" asked Gaisler-Salomon. "Traditionally, it was believed that only genetic information is transferred from generation to generation via eggs and sperm cells. This study contributes to the notion that soft-wired information that is not written into the genetic code can also be transferred from one generation to the next via the germline."

Many psychiatric illnesses, such as schizophrenia and , are related to . Better understanding of the related mechanisms can contribute to the development of better diagnostics and improved treatments.

Explore further: Exposure to stress even before conception causes genetic changes to offspring

More information: The article is "Prereproductive Stress to Female Rats Alters Corticotropin Releasing Factor Type 1 Expression in Ova and Behavior and Brain Corticotropin Releasing Factor Type 1 Expression in Offspring" by Hiba Zaidan, Micah Leshem, and Inna Gaisler-Salomon (DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.04.014). The article appears in Biological Psychiatry, Volume 74, Issue 9 (November 1, 2013)

Related Stories

Exposure to stress even before conception causes genetic changes to offspring

July 8, 2013
A female's exposure to distress even before she conceives causes changes in the expression of a gene linked to the stress mechanism in the body—in the ovum and later in the brains of the offspring from when they are born, ...

Stressed dad = depressed children? Investigating the paternal transmission of stress

August 31, 2011
Does Dad's stress affect his unborn children? According to the results of a new study in Elsevier's Biological Psychiatry, it seems the answer may be "yes, but it's complicated".

Dad's life stress exposure can affect offspring brain development, study finds

June 12, 2013
Sperm doesn't appear to forget anything. Stress felt by dad—whether as a preadolescent or adult—leaves a lasting impression on his sperm that gives sons and daughters a blunted reaction to stress, a response linked to ...

Offspring of mothers stressed during pregnancy with a passive stress coping style more prone to obesity

July 30, 2013
Research to be presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior (SSIB), the foremost society for research into all aspects of eating and drinking behavior, shows that passively coping offspring ...

Effects of prenatal stress passed across generations in mice

August 17, 2011
Sons of male mice exposed to prenatal stress are more sensitive to stress as adults, according to a study in the August 17 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. These findings suggest experiences in the womb can lead to individual ...

Postpartum depression spans generations

October 8, 2013
A recently published study suggests that exposure to social stress not only impairs a mother's ability to care for her children but can also negatively impact her daughter's ability to provide maternal care to future offspring.

Recommended for you

Babies can learn that hard work pays off

September 21, 2017
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. A new study from MIT reveals that babies as young as 15 months can learn to follow this advice. The researchers found that babies who watched an adult struggle at two different ...

Oxytocin turns up the volume of your social environment

September 20, 2017
Before you shop for the "cuddle" hormone oxytocin to relieve stress and enhance your social life, read this: a new study from the University of California, Davis, suggests that sometimes, blocking the action of oxytocin in ...

Researchers develop new tool to assess individual's level of wisdom

September 20, 2017
Researchers at University of San Diego School of Medicine have developed a new tool called the San Diego Wisdom Scale (SD-WISE) to assess an individual's level of wisdom, based upon a conceptualization of wisdom as a trait ...

Alcohol use affects levels of cholesterol regulator through epigenetics

September 20, 2017
In an analysis of the epigenomes of people and mice, researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine and the National Institutes of Health report that drinking alcohol may induce changes to a cholesterol-regulating gene.

Self-control may not diminish throughout the day

September 20, 2017
After a long day of work and carefully watching what you eat, you might expect your self-control to slip a little by kicking back and cracking open a bag of potato chips.

One in four girls is depressed at age 14, new study reveals

September 20, 2017
New research shows a quarter of girls (24%) and one in 10 boys (9%) are depressed at age 14.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.