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Does war change our DNA? – Professor Peter Pregelj

The impact of war and terrorism on children has been the focus of a growing number of studies worldwide. Questions have been raised about children’s vulnerability to the stress that comes with living in a war area. It is known that even infants have the ability to perceive and remember traumatic events and, consequently, develop symptoms of post-traumatic distress that are similar to those exhibited by older children and adults. However, it is suggested that not only memory but more profound neurological changes are involved in response to childhood trauma.

It is well established that early environmental influences in personal development, particularly stress and traumatic experiences in childhood or even in the prenatal period, can remain pervasive across the lifespan, the phenomenon called ‘developmental programming’.  Different mechanisms might be involved in this programming such as epigenetic mechanisms. Epigenetics, a new field in genetics, is the study of heritable changes in gene expression or cellular phenotype caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence.

Recent discoveries in epigenetics suggest ways in which the environment, including an environment defined by warfare, may affect brain plasticity as well as one’s stress response. It has been hypothesized that the long-term consequences of early-life adversity represent epigenetic influences. Recently, studies have begun to provide empirical support of experience-driven epigenetic modifications to the genome.

It was reported that childhood adversities could change the DNA structure by specific DNA methylation. It is also known that binding of the transcription factors to the specific regions of the DNA is influenced by different mechanisms such as DNA sequence especially in the promotor regions on the one hand, but also epigenetic mechanisms such as methylation of DNA molecule or histone modulation on the other. Especially, function of the neuronal structures involved in the stress response could be permanently changed by exposure to severe stress. It has been suggested that changes in the glucocorticoid system are mediated by tissue-specific changes in gene expression.

Epigenetic mechanisms could also be involved in pathophysiology of mental disorders and suicidal behaviour and preclinical data suggests that epigenetic DNA modifications could pass from one generation to the next. It could be speculated that war exposure could influence the neurobiological mechanisms of subsequent generations, however further research is needed.

About Peter Pregelj

Peter Pregelj
Peter Pregelj, MD, PhD is the President of the Psychiatric Association of Slovenia. He is associated professor at University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Medicine and Faculty of Arts. He is the representative of the Psychiatric Association of Slovenia in European Union of Medical Specialists (U.E.M.S.), Section of Psychiatry and in European Psychiatry Association (EPA) Council of National Psychiatric Associations. His research interests include neurobiology of suicidal behaviour and acetylcholinesterase regulation.

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