1138 GMT September 22, 2020
Our genetic code is fixed, however how our bodies use genes changes depending on a range of factors from environmental to emotional, The Age reported.
The physical manifestation of these changes is called epigenetics — chemical markers on the DNA that can switch genes on or off in reaction to a person’s environment.
QUT trauma researcher Professor Jane Shakespeare-Finch said she wanted to investigate whether the body had a physical reaction to trauma on a genetic level.
“Often people think post-traumatic stress disorder and post-traumatic growth are two different ends of a spectrum but that’s simply not true,” Dr. Shakespeare-Finch said.
“All of my research over the years suggests these things can co-occur, that the catalyst for post-traumatic stress disorder is the very same catalyst that can create positive change.”
To test her theory, she partnered with QUT geneticist Divya Mehta to conduct a pilot study into whether a person’s epigenetics can reveal if they have dealt with their trauma effectively.
To do this they looked at 48 first-year paramedic students from two Australian universities, getting them to give saliva samples and self-report any traumatic incidents that had occurred while they were on the job.
Dr. Mehta said through this study they discovered two stress genes, NR3C1 and FKBP5, which are known to have links to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), had evidence of epigenetic activity in the students.
“What’s interesting here is the genes themselves are known candidates but this is the first time we’ve looked not just at PTSD but also post-traumatic growth and resilience,” she said.
The researchers discovered DNA methylation, a major form of epigenetic gene engagement, had occurred on those two genes in the students who had experienced trauma and recovered.
In essence, the body had switched on those genes to help the person cope with a traumatic experience.
Paramedic students were chosen for the study, Dr. Mehta said, because they were people who would expect to encounter trauma as part of their employment, but also had a high rate of resilience.
“We found an inverse relationship between PTSD and resilience on a site on the FKBP5 gene — where there was reduced PTSD we found heightened resilience and vice versa,” Dr. Mehta said.
The researchers are still going through the data they gathered and plan to publish more findings in the near future, and also hope the research points the way to better treatments for people with severe PTSD.
“This research has shown us the biological markers, some objective evidence that what we’ve been finding and talking about for years is not an illusion, it’s not just a coping strategy,” Dr Shakespeare-Finch said.
“We now have those epigenetic markers that show us exactly where it’s going on the genome.”
The research has been published in the journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy.