How parents' trauma leaves biological traces in children

My trauma research team quickly trained health professionals to evaluate and, if needed, treat the women. We monitored them through their pregnancies and beyond. When the babies were born, they were smaller than usual—the first sign that the trauma of the World Trade Center attack had reached the womb. Nine months later we examined 38 women and their infants when they came in for a wellness visit. Psychological evaluations revealed that many of the mothers had developed PTSD. And those with PTSD had unusually low levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol, a feature that researchers were coming to associate with the disorder.

Surprisingly and disturbingly, the saliva of the nine-month-old babies of the women with PTSD also showed low cortisol. The effect was most prominent in babies whose mothers had been in their third trimester on that fateful day. Just a year earlier a team I led had reported low cortisol levels in adult children of Holocaust survivors, but we’d assumed that it had something to do with being raised by parents who were suffering from the long-term emotional consequences of severe trauma. Now it looked like trauma leaves a trace in offspring even before they are born.

In the decades since, research by my group and others has confirmed that adverse experiences may influence the next generation through multiple pathways. The most apparent route runs through parental behavior, but influences during gestation and even changes in eggs and sperm may also play a role. And all these channels seem to involve epigenetics: alterations in the way that genes function. Epigenetics potentially explains why effects of trauma may endure long after the immediate threat is gone, and it is also implicated in the diverse pathways by which trauma is transmitted to future generations.