Ancestral stress delivers a one-two punch, affecting our health and well-being both physically and emotionally.
Now, new research by Dr. Gerlinde Metz at the University of Lethbridge’s Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience, shows just how damaging and pervasive stress may be — its effects even crossing multiple generations through pregnancy.
“We have developed models to explore how stressful experiences can travel from one generation to the next to influence stress resiliency and risk of disease,” says Metz, a professor of neuroscience and the U of L’s Board of Governors Research Chair in Healthy Futures. “Our work has shown that experience not only in parents, but also in grandparents and generations beyond can influence health and disease from early development to old age.”
Her team’s pioneering research has shown for the first time that remote ancestral stress — several generations removed from a mother — can influence her risk of preterm birth, diabetes, and the development of her baby.
“These are important new insights, because in about half of the cases of preterm birth the causes are not known,” she says. “Here we have identified a new mechanism that allows us to better predict the risk of preterm birth for a mother. Together with our collaborators, we plan to use this knowledge to find new treatments that can prevent early labour.”
Funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Alberta Centre for Child, Family & Community Research, Metz’s team includes work by both graduate and undergraduate students.
Understanding Ancestral Stress May Help Better Disease Prediction and Prevention
“Together with our exceptional team of collaborators and trainees, our next step is to identify mechanisms — including how the brain translates stress to alter pregnancy health — and identify diagnostic markers of prenatal stress that guide future human studies of early biomarkers in risk assessment,” says Metz.
She highlights that transgenerational inheritance of stress responses may explain many complex diseases and mental health conditions for which the causes are poorly understood. Often, the risk of such conditions runs through families.
“It is as if stress generates an ancestral ghost that will affect the health of future generations. These ancestral experiences are not passed on through changes in the genetic code of the DNA. Instead, stress induces an epigenetic footprint that will be passed on to future generations,” says Metz. Epigenetics refers to an external influence that changes the expression of a gene, meaning that a stressful experience can essentially leave a mark that is transferred from one generation to the next.
Recovering from Ancestral Stress
Metz and her team’s latest work is focused on translating epigenetic signatures of stress into the discovery of new predictive biomarkers of disease, thereby creating the opportunity to develop personalized medicine.
To advance preventive therapies, her research also determines if environmental enrichment and drug treatment are able to improve maternal and newborn long-term health outcomes.
“We have some new intriguing findings that demonstrate that an enriched environment can reduce the impact of ancestral stress,” she says. “While we cannot reverse the stressful experiences of our ancestors, healthy lifestyle changes are a means to intervene at any time in life. We hope that these encouraging results will translate into new treatments that promote healthy futures for our children and next generations.”