Parents can pass on trauma to their children

PARENTS involved in tragedies such as the Holocaust and 9-11 can pass their trauma-related biological functioning onto their children, Queensland's Child Protection Inquiry has heard.

Mater Child and Youth Mental Health Service director Brett McDermott told the inquiry in Brisbane on Thursday how trauma could be passed between generations.

And he said there was evidence of structural brain damage in abused children.

He said scientists now knew genes could work faster or slower, rather than a linear fashion as it was believed for decades.

"The seminal studies have been done to show good parenting makes your genome work faster and be more efficient and make its stress responses better and you respond to your environment in a much more kind of rigorous and reactive way," he said.

"Whereas bad parenting closes off your genome and makes the reactions much more all or nothing, much less regulated, much less sophisticated, and it's called gene programming.

"It happens early in life. In fact, it probably can happen in utero as well and it sets people up for a way of interacting with the environment for the rest of their life."

Mr McDermott told the inquiry about psychiatry and neuroscience professor Rachel Yehuda, who examined 38 pregnant women who were at or near the World Trade Centre at the time of the attack and the effect it had on their children.

"Rachel Yehuda has had a series of studies and she's look also at the children of Holocaust survivors and found that the gene pattern of abused people is actually not randomly passed on," he said.

"It's very specifically passed on to the child, so the degree of ravelling and unravelling of your genome, ergo the speed with which your genome works, it's actually passed through generations.

"She looked at people after 9-11, mothers who were pregnant and have different levels of exposure to that tragedy.

"The highly exposed, their genome was more ravelled and tighter and the genome of the babies was more ravelled and tighter."

Mr McDermott also said the "take-home message" from neurobiology was that early protection from abuse was desirable, especially for babies and pregnant women who had abusive histories.

"These are extremely high risk groups for the offspring having brain damage," he said.

Topics:  mental health parenting tragedy trauma

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