Genetic Disorders or Epigenetic Disorders?

One of the things the reading for Tuesday left me thinking about was the quote from Wentz in “Crazy Like Us”, “The psychological damage in terms of the PTSD and the anxiety and depression was only going to grow as a problem.  I told them that the impact could be multigenerational” (Watters, 67).  There is no doubt that PTSD is a long-lasting disorder, but the idea of the multigenerational disorder reminded me of epigenetics.  The alteration in the function or expression of the genes due to environmental factors will be apparent in an individual each time a protein is made. Since we found that famines could affect the genetic make-up of following generations, can PTSD cause similar methylation or histone deacetylation of DNA?

Some researchers have studied the epigenetic result of PTSD in rats (either in utero or after birth).  While it is unethical to induce PTSD in humans, researchers took blood samples from patients suffering from PTSD and found that they had six or seven times the number of abnormalities in the function of genes in comparison with non-PTSD patients.  Additionally, they noticed that many of these changes regarding these genes lead to a heightened immune system.  They go further and state that “epigenetically, the body has judged [a PTSD patient]’s surroundings too dangerous to let him or her relax too much”.  So this psychological disorder can also be explained through the changes in the expression of DNA.

If famine or sever stress can change our DNA, which is in turn passed onto our children, aren’t these technically “genetic disorders”.  Whenever I have to fill out the forms in doctor’s offices, it is typical to include family history of heart disease, cancer, mental illness, etc.  Should these forms be including more environmental factors that can affect our DNA? If chemicals that we experience daily (tobacco, alcohol) and experiences can alter the expression of our genes that can be passed to our offspring, aren’t these similar to genetic disorders?

The obvious difference is that genetic disorders are caused by abnormalities in genes, while epigenetics refers to the changes in the expression of our DNA, not the DNA.  But since we have seen that epigenetics can be passed down to future generations, is this a field we should be spending more time in?

Currently, experiencing a traumatic event is essential for the diagnosis or PTSD, but if a child inherits a risk or even the symptoms of PTSD, they will not be able to be properly diagnose and treated.


Epigenetics and PTSD

3 thoughts on “Genetic Disorders or Epigenetic Disorders?

  1. This is an interesting view but do we really require the category of PTSD. I fully understand that troops have a difficult time accepting a diagnosis of chronic anxiety but how would these cases be diagnosed if the PTSD term were unavailable.
    Since we are unable to adjust a person’s epigenetic adjustments technically we treat them with appropriate pharms.
    If we were more advanced troops would be scanned for susceptibility to anxiety disorders ( and others) and barred from service as they were in the opening month of WW2. This will reduce psychological casualties.
    Ultimately the average person is ruined psychologically by 200 days of combat risk exposure.
    Whenever a child appears with a psychological disorder the genetic inheritance is the presumed cause where trauma is not proven. There is little reason to use the PTSD term in this situation as the child has some diagnosable illness without this term.
    We may be doing a disservice by proliferating categories simply to sugarcoat reality for those being treated


  2. I believe PTSD became a term because “chronic anxiety” doesn’t really encapsulate all of the symptoms. In addition to prolonged hyper-arousal that causes impaired function in daily life, PTSD patients also must present intrusive recollections and use avoidant behavior.

    I don’t think prescreening soldiers would solve the problem of PTSD. Although the diagnosis of the disorder first came with the soldiers returning from WWII, there are many patients today that have different traumatic experiences that we cannot prevent (natural disasters, sexual abuse, accidents). Firefighters and urban policemen are also more likely to develop PTSD.

    Additionally, we are lucky enough that our country is not using the draft right now, but if we prescreened all of our troops for epigenetic/genetic susceptibilities, it would be a lot more difficult to fill the ranks.


  3. Psychological screening does occur quite frequently in the military. Though many enlistees do not have to undergo quite the same processes, elite tactical groups, pilots, people in submarines, and others have to do quite extensive psychological testing. This is done to ensure that the men and women when under extreme circumstances are able to function and do not crumble underneath the pressure. Susceptibility to PTSD is also likely to present itself as another disorder prior to a trauma incident, so many soldiers who are prone to this disorder are likely to be weeded out in these subdivisions of the armed forces.

    In terms of PTSD being multi-generational, I don’t think it is wise for anyone to assume that this is possible without evidence from a multi-generational study. The fact is, PTSD, as we know it, is a relatively new disorder which saw its first attention in 1984. Though similar things have been studied in different wars, the symptoms presented differently, suggesting a cultural influence. If this is true, it would making a causal statement about the multi-generational effects of PTSD difficult to pinpoint. We also need much more longitudinal evidence to support this.


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