Category: Animal Behavior

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What Can A Lizard Tell Us About Mental Health?

00Animal Behavior, Child Development, Epigenetics, Evolutionary Psychology, Featured news, Genetics, Health, Parenting, Stress, Trauma December, 18

Source: Hayke Tjemmes at flickr, Creative Commons

A new study on lizards has found that, when exposed to stress, their responses can be passed down genetically. Scientists now believe there may be more to the process of heritability than once thought. This process is called “Transgenerational Stress Inheritance.”

As recently as 2011, most research did not examine the possibility that parental stress could affect sperm or egg cells. Since genes are transferred to offspring through these cells, anything that modifies them can have an impact on genetic expression in children. The idea that parents’ experiences prior to pregnancy can change gene expression and, therefore, affect offspring behaviour, is novel.

In the lizard study, researchers from Pennsylvania State University exposed young lizards to fire ants (a natural stressor) and compared stress levels to unexposed lizards. Interestingly, contact with the stressor did not affect the lizards’ behaviour later in life. But, their offspring had stronger stress reactions than offspring of lizards who had not been subjected to the ants.

Lead researcher Gail McCormick told PsyPost:

“Our work reveals that the stress experienced by an individual’s parents or ancestors may overshadow the stress that an individual faces within its lifetime. In this study, offspring of lizards from high-stress sites were more responsive to stress as adults, regardless of exposure to stress during their own lifetime.”

These findings suggest that, although early life stress may not manifest later in adulthood, the effects may be passed down to offspring, even if offspring are not directly exposed to the stressor.

A similar study involved researchers conditioning mice to associate the smell of cherries with a mild electric current. When the fragrance permeated the air, the mice were given a small electric shock. And so, the mice began to fear the scent even when the shock wasn’t administered. Even more fascinating was that offspring of these mice, as well as their offspring, experienced fear in the presence of the odor. The fear reaction occurred even though the later generations didn’t experience the conditioning process.

Of course, the question these studies pose is whether there is a similar effect in humans.

As recently reported in the Guardian newspaper, researchers from New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine compared the genes of direct descendants of Jews who were “interned in a Nazi concentration camp, witnessed or experienced torture or who had had to hide during the second world war” to the offspring of Jews living outside of Europe who were unharmed. The children of parents who experienced WWII trauma showed genetic changes and a greater risk of stress disorders. These were not present in the other children. The Guardian article stated:

“[The] new finding is [a] clear example in humans of the theory of epigenetic inheritance: the idea that environmental factors can affect the genes of your children.”

In other research, psychologist Margaret Keyes from the University of Minnesota and colleagues examined twins to determine if the behaviour of biological parents could affect offspring who were not raised by them. The study found that children of parents who smoked were more likely to be smokers, even if those children weren’t raised by the parents, and as such, did not have parental smoking behavior modeled to them. Scientists are still questioning, though, whether it’s parental behavior directly affecting these genes or a genetic predisposition to smoking being passed down for generations.

On the whole, these studies make the case that genetic changes can happen a lot faster than previously thought, within a few generations or even one generation. And, as reported in Science magazine, people can see evolution in real time:

“Now, thanks to the genomic revolution, researchers can actually track the population-level genetic shifts that mark evolution in action—and they’re doing this in humans. [Studies] show how our genomes have changed over centuries or decades…”

Research in this field is still new and is subject to several caveats. Perhaps the most important one is the complexity of human beings and their environments. Indeed, there may be too many variables that factor into the human experience for researchers to arrive at definitive conclusions.

But, these studies do suggest that individuals may be affected by the stress felt by ancestors in  before them. Further research is required to determine whether these findings are the result of transgenerational stress inheritance or an external factor that has yet to be considered.

– Andrei Nistor, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

-Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

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Treatments Available to Long Term Abduction Victims

60Animal Behavior, Cognition, Depression, Dreaming, Family Dynamics, Featured news, Health, Parenting, Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis, Sleep, Stress, Therapy, Trauma April, 15

Source: artmajor24//Flickr

Between 2002 and 2004, 16-year-old Amanda Berry, 21-year-old Michelle Knight, and 14-year-old Georgina DeJesus were abducted from the streets of Cleveland, Ohio. They were lured into the home of Ariel Castro where they spent the next 11 years in captivity.

Often kept in restraints and locked rooms, the women regularly had their lives threatened to deter any plans of escape.  They were given little food or the opportunity to bathe. Sexual abuse led to Knight being impregnated several times, only to be beaten and starved in order to force miscarriage.  It wasn’t until May 2013 that the women were finally rescued and Castro arrested.

Other cases popularized by the media include that of Elizabeth Smart, held captive for 9 months, and Jaycee Dugard who was held captive for 18 years. These victims are now free, but living with the emotional aftermath.

In a 2000 study by the Department of Neurological and Psychiatric Sciences at the University of Padova, interviews with kidnap victims showed common after-effects of abduction including vivid flashbacks of the events, nightmares, and feelings of depression, all common symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Hypervigilance was also reported, where individuals anticipated danger and frequently felt guarded, leading to trouble sleeping, eating, and social withdrawal due to difficulty trusting others.

Mental health professors David A. Alexander and Susan Klein, from the Aberdeen Centre for Trauma Research in the UK also add that some victims end up “shutting off’ their emotions or denying that they even experienced a traumatic event, which may stem from a desire to avoid anything that reminds them of their trauma.

How does someone this traumatized even begin to recover?  Clinicians who work with these victims help them find opportunities to make their own decisions, to slowly understand that they are no longer powerless.

Clinical psychologist Rebecca Bailey, therapist to Jaycee Dugard, is the author of, “Safe Kids, Smart Parents: What Parents Need to Know to Keep Their Children Safe.” In an interview with the Trauma and Mental Health Report, Bailey explained: “Number one is helping victims find their voice.  When you’ve been kidnapped, so much of your world is about having choices made for you…From day one you have to give them choices for everything, Do you want a glass of milk, or do you want a glass of water? Things like that.”

Another important aspect to recovery is the role of the family.  It is through a strong connection with the family that the victim can feel safe, comforted, and empowered.  Bailey mentions “tribal meetings” with families soon after rescue to reunify both parties and create a support system. Through these family systems, further recovery is possible.

Specific therapeutic approaches for victim recovery really depend on the individual.  In some cases Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can be used, in other cases experiential therapy or a more psychodynamic approach can be implemented.  Common techniques used in therapy with kidnapping victims are role-playing, therapeutic pets, music, or even walking through the wilderness in an attempt to trigger underlying feelings that must be dealt with.

Often, different therapies are combined to see which works best for the individual. Bailey reminds, however, that client interaction with the therapist also has a large impact on recovery.

Bailey: The most important thing is for the therapist to be mindful, authentic, and purposeful. Counterproductive would be having a therapist who says very little.  This could almost reinjure [the victim] because they need a certain amount of modelling as well.

Modelling how to have an authentic healthy relationship—after the abusive one they had with their abductor—is crucial to helping the victim integrate aspects of normal everyday life.

Still, even with proper therapy and a strong support system, the trauma of being abducted and held captive for years is unlikely to be erased.  In the case of the young women in Cleveland, along with many others, the journey to recovery has been a challenging one, but one that has been described as worth taking:

“I may have been through hell and back, but I am strong enough to walk through hell with a smile on my face and my head held high,” says Michelle Knight in a YouTube video addressed to the public.  “I will not let the situation define who I am.  I will define the situation.”

– Contributing Writer: Anjali Wisnarama, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today