If your parents were Holocaust survivors with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) you most likely will have lower levels of stress hormone cortisol, compared to offspring of parents without PTSD, says a report in Archives of General Psychiatry (JAMA/Archives), September issue.

The writers explained that biological differences observed in people with PTSD, including low cortisol levels, may either result from exposure to a traumatic event or might be there before such an event and predispose the patient to PTSD. The authors added “Once identified, such risk factors may prove to be useful as predictors of who will develop PTSD after exposure to trauma, or they may even identify potential new targets for prophylaxis (preventive therapy) and treatment.”

Rachel Yehuda, Ph.D., Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and James J. Peters, Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Bronx, New York, and team looked at 33 people whose parents had lived through the Holocaust. They were divided into groups based on whether or not at least one parent suffered from PTSD – the offspring had to complete a questionnaire. Of the 33 participants, 23 had a parent(s) with PTSD, and 10 had no parents with PTSD. The volunteers’ blood cortisol levels were measured every 30 minutes over a 24-hour period. None of the volunteers suffered from PTSD at the time of the study.

They found that blood cortisol levels were lower among the offspring of Holocaust survivors who suffered from PTSD. The difference was especially marked when the parent with PTSD was the mother.

The writers explained “Offspring with parental PTSD also demonstrated changes in some chronobiological parameters previously identified as altered in trauma survivors with PTSD despite that no subject had PTSD at assessment. However, the overall pattern of alterations observed in the offspring with parental PTSD did not follow that reported for PTSD, allowing differentiation between parameters associated with risk vs. those associated with PTSD pathogenesis (development).”

The authors concluded “Although the implications for PTSD prophylaxis cannot be specified from these results, they have clear clinical applications, including assessment of parental PTSD in patients with PTSD and evaluation of stressful events during pregnancy and early childhood. Indeed, the data suggest that examination of epigenetic [environmental or other effect that does not change DNA] or in utero phenomena should be added to the search for genetic polymorphisms that may underlie individual differences that increase vulnerability to this disorder.”

“Parental Posttraumatic Stress Disorder as a Vulnerability Factor for Low Cortisol Trait in Offspring of Holocaust Survivors”
Rachel Yehuda, PhD; Martin H. Teicher, MD, PhD; Jonathan R. Seckl, MD, PhD; Robert A. Grossman, MD; Adam Morris, BA; Linda M. Bierer, MD
Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2007;64:1040-1048.
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Written by: Christian Nordqvist