28 February 2022

Ah, the war, what have you, vile, done…

Biologist Yakutenko explained how the war changes the work of human genes for several generations to come

Anna Mayskaya, "Doctor Peter"

Scientific research shows that stress or hunger experienced during the war and other monstrous events — genocide, terror, deprivation — affects several generations of people at once.

Mental and physical

– Our psyche is the result of the activity of our brain, one of the organs of the body, in whose cells the same DNA is embedded, — molecular biologist Irina Yakutenko said in her blog on YouTube channel. — And the way this DNA works, how genes are read from it, proceeds according to the same rules as in other cells of our body.

There is a relationship between our physical condition and what is happening to our psyche. This is especially evident in a situation of very severe stress. For example, in case of war.

Unfortunately, there are many examples and proofs of this, the biologist notes. It is described both documentarily and in literature — as a generation of those people who survived the war, cannot find themselves in life, use alcohol, drugs, have mental disorders, as well as the generation of their children.

– Until recently, it was associated with a psychological state — and partly this is true, — says Irina Yakutenko. — But now there is a lot of data that this is only part of the problem. The altered psyche of the survivors of the war and their descendants are associated with natural physical changes in their DNA, which determine how genes work related to the evaluation of signals from the outside (they will be positive or negative) and how they are able to drive a person into depression.

Physical changes in DNA affect how our psyche will work.

Genocide in Rwanda

One of the striking examples that the biologist cites is the consequences of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. In a few months, Hutu people exterminated from 500 thousand to 1 million Tutsi people.

– Some time after the incident, it turned out that the children of people who survived the genocide, and who did not even see the atrocities, are much more likely to suffer from mental disorders. Moreover, the descendants of Tutsis who did not live in Rwanda at that time, such features are not observed, — says the biologist.

War leaves "marks" on DNA

– The reason for such a strange change in the psyche of the mass of people is epigenetic regulation, — explains molecular biologist Irina Yakutenko. — This is a special mechanism of regulation (supra-genomic), which is designed to be responsible for rapid response to certain stimuli from the environment. We know about the classical mechanisms of adaptation — mutations, selection, Mendelian inheritance, survival of the fittest, and so on… These are effective mechanisms. But they have a drawback — it takes a very long time (centuries and millennia) for this effectiveness to manifest.

Epigenetics is just one of those mechanisms that allows the body to adapt to a rapid change in the environment without changing the genes directly in the DNA.

– The fact is that not every change in the environment needs to be reacted to by changing certain "letters" in our DNA, — explains Irina Yakutenko. — So epigenetic regulation is a "twist" technology our basic functions under momentary environmental changes. It occurs due to the affixing of certain "tags" on DNA, which by themselves do not change the sequence of our genes, but tell cellular machines that must read the information recorded in our genes exactly how to read it (actively or vice versa — not to pay attention to it).

For example, when the body finds itself in a situation of prolonged hunger, epigenetic mechanisms put down notes that say — let's be more active in reading those genes that are responsible for storing nutrients, and less active — those that are responsible for splitting, explains the biologist.

– Such regulation obviously helps the body to survive, — says Irina Yakutenko. — He's starting to stock up. Moreover, these marks that change the work of genes are transmitted along the chain of generations.

Famine in the Netherlands

– Such changes in metabolism and "markings" on genes were discovered by scientists in the children of those who survived the famine in the Netherlands in 1944-45, — Irina Yakutenko gives an example of the study. — Moreover, its participants were children who were not yet born at that time — starving mothers were pregnant. And among these grown—up children there were many people with obesity and high cholesterol, and as a result - cardiovascular diseases.

When pregnant women in 44-45 years found themselves in a situation of prolonged calorie shortage, their body turned on an energy-saving mode, and it put exactly the same message in the DNA of their children, the expert says.

Severe stress is dangerous

– These labels on genes are also needed in order to reduce the body's response to extreme stress, — says Irina Yakutenko. — If it weren't for them, the response to stress would be so strong that it could harm the body itself.

Stress acting for a long time, or very significant, can disable a large number of organs and systems at once. In emergency mode, they work at the limit of their capabilities, which leads to wear and tear of the body.

– Severe or prolonged stress is extremely dangerous for health. That is why epigenetic systems have "twisted" the regulation of the response to stress to a minimum — they have blunted the body's ability to respond to stress in this most disastrous way," explains the biologist. — It helped people react to what was happening. But in the long run, such a shift in the balance of the stress response led to the appearance of post-traumatic disorder and other mental problems in the children of those who survived the tragedy.

The biologist draws attention to the fact that the daughter of the woman who has experienced severe stress will pass on changes in genes to her children.

– Stress during pregnancy due to the peculiarities of embryogenesis affects not only the daughter who was born, but also her descendants, too, - says Irina Yakutenko. — It is also transmitted through the male line. This was proved by experiments on mice. If a male is stressed for some time before mating, then his spermatozoa will carry "instructions" that will also change the stress response in their offspring. There is another mechanism involved in RNA. And the changes in the descendants were traced even in two generations. Only the great-grandchildren of animals who had suffered severe stress got rid of these epigenetic marks.

If in early childhood you witnessed terrible events, then in the future, perhaps, you will not react correctly to stressful influences or your body will not function properly.

Stress irreversibly affects the psyche

The biologist draws attention to the fact that so far people in the world are very bad at treating such disorders.

– Psychology has been divorced from biology for a long time. Methods of treatment of mental disorders have no proven effectiveness. It's better with pills, but even here the situation is far from ideal," says Irina Yakutenko. — So the stress experienced during the war and genocide, or other events that should not occur during normal peaceful life, can affect how your genes work and permanently change the work of your psyche and the psyche of your children.

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