By Heather Callaghan
A distinct genetic signature has been detected in Canadian “ice storm babies.” Children who were born in the aftermath of the massive Quebec ice storm of 1998. Millions were left without power for days, weeks and even months.
The number of days an expectant mother was deprived of electricity during Quebec’s Ice Storm predicts the epigenetic profile of her child, a new study finds.
Scientists from the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and McGill University think they’ve cracked the code on exactly how disasters like the storm can affect the unborn.
Five months after the event, researchers recruited women who had been pregnant during the disaster and assessed their degrees of hardship and distress in a study called Project Ice Storm.
Thirteen years later, the researchers found that DNA within the T cells – a type of immune system cell – of 36 children showed distinctive patterns in DNA methylation.
The researchers concluded for the first time that maternal hardship, predicted the degree of methylation of DNA in the T cells. The “epigenetic” signature plays a role in the way the genes express themselves. This study is also the first to show that it is the objective stress exposure (such as days without electricity) and not the degree of emotional distress in pregnant women that causes long lasting changes in the epigenome of their babies.
The health impacts on these children is less clear, but changes in the family of genes related to immunity and sugar metabolism detected in these babies, now teenagers, may put them at a greater risk to develop asthma, diabetes or obesity, they conclude.
While it’s notable that there are diagnostics to detect body impacts from disaster and hardship, it isn’t anything that traditional medicine practitioners and nutritionists have missed throughout the centuries. For instance, in a study of Cherokee skulls in the aftermath of the Trail of Tears, changes in body structure could be seen as a direct result from genocide, trauma and hunger. However, there were people during that time and after who were warning ofnutritional and physical degeneration as a result of those very hardships.
If you read enough of these studies, you’ll see a distinct pattern that comes scarily close to outright blaming mothers (and fathers) for the ‘epigenetic’ profile of posterity. Such as the one I refer to in: “Junk Food Encoded in Children’s DNA and Beyond.”
I believe, in those instances, it is a twisted way to use epigenetics (impact from environmental factors, nutrition and even stress) to turn a gun on parents who aren’t even aware of the harmful impact of products supposedly tested and originally found safe.
Maybe epigenetics is gaining too much headway in lieu of blaming ‘inherent genetics’ for everything – which would cause so much scrutiny toward things approved as safe in our food supply and environment. The epigenetics outlook causes people to say, “Wait a second, what have I been exposed to? Why aren’t I getting enough nutrition?” instead of “Oh, I must have bad genes.”
But, as the above study notes, the children’s health didn’t have much to do with the stress of Mom, but the impact of the outage itself.