Epigenetics and PTSD: Nature and Nurture Working in Conjunction to Give you Flashbacks

Josh Clark

It seems pretty sensible that the Columbia University epidemiologists conducting a recent study on biological markers of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder would travel to Detroit to find their sample population. Again, to quickly find 100 participants suffering from PTSD for their study, researchers from New York went to Detroit.

After ferreting out the people who'd experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, but didn't meet the six criteria for a PTSD diagnosis, the Columbia researchers took blood samples from 23 people they determined had PTSD. What they found is another mark in favor of epigenetics, a subbranch of genetics that's lending a lot of substantial credence to the nurture side of the nature vs. nurture debate.

Following an analysis of 14,000 genes in the PTSD sufferers' blood samples, the researchers concluded that they had six to seven times the number of genes that functioned unusually, compared to people without PTSD. They found that these genes largely had to do with a heightened immune system.

It's possible the genes functioned at a higher capacity to ward off the cumulative effects of prolonged stress. Which means that the Columbia researchers found evidence of individuals evolving within a lifetime, rather than over the course of generations, which is what epigenetics is all about.

Experiences, diet, the way your parents reared you -- it's becoming clear that the body is capable of adapting to conditions quickly, by altering how genes express the proteins they manufacture. An added methyl tag here, here and here and you've got a heightened sympathetic nervous system, which the rest of us refer to as a jumpy person who's been through a traumatic experience. Epigentically, the body has judged this person's surroundings too dangerous to let him or her relax too much. In a way, PTSD described as a psychological disorder is also equally a description of an epigenetic change that has taken place in a person.

And, really, you can make the argument that any epigenetic change is a more accurate description of an older, less understood disorder. From PTSD, to obesity, to sociopathy. As we become masters of not only the genetic code, but the ways it can be altered epigenetically, not only will these previous disease misunderstandings freeze in step and be left behind in history with the long, beaked mask that protected Medieval physicians from catching the plague to the hypothesis that living organisms like mice can spontaneously generate from foodstuffs. After all, what need do we have for diagnostic medicine or psychology when we can identify exactly what genes are malfunctioning and fix them directly?

Interestingly, in just the next couple of years, epigenetics will probably provide the biggest revolution in our understanding of disease since germ theory caught hold in 1850. We will come to actually understand on a genetic level how we get sick and exactly how to treat it, which will hold a light up to all competing ideas in use today. I'm curious to see what, if any, survives the transition.

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