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Does war change our DNA? Implications of recent research in epigenetics

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The impact of war and terrorism on children has been the focus of a growing number of studies worldwide. Recent discoveries in epigenetics suggest ways in which the environment, including an environment defined by warfare, may affect brain plasticity as well as one’s stress response. It is well established that early environmental influences in personal development, particularly stress and traumatic experiences in childhood or even in the prenatal period, can remain pervasive across the lifespan, the phenomenon called ‘developmental programming’. It has been hypothesized that the long-term consequences of early-life adversity represent epigenetic influences. Recently, studies have begun to provide empirical support of experience-driven epigenetic modifications to the genome. It was reported that childhood adversities could change the DNA structure by specific DNA methylation. It is also known that binding of the transcription factors to the specific regions of the DNA is influenced by different mechanisms such as DNA sequence especially in the promotor regions on the one hand, but also epigenetic mechanisms such as methylation of DNA molecule or histone modulation on the other. Especially, function of the neuronal structures involved in the stress response could be permanently changed by exposure to severe stress. It has been suggested that changes in the glucocorticoid system are mediated by tissue-specific changes in gene expression. Epigenetic mechanisms could also be involved in pathophysiology of mental disorders and suicidal behaviour and preclinical data suggests that epigenetic DNA modifications could pass from one generation to the next.

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