Can PTSD pass from mother to baby? COPH genomics researchers aim to find out

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Twenty-five years ago, nearly one million people died in the Rwandan genocide against ethnic Tutsi. Today, 26 percent of Rwandan adults suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychological health condition triggered by witnessing or being involved in highly stressful events, such as natural disasters, violence or war.

Drs. Monica Uddin and Derek Wildman, genomics faculty at the USF College of Public Health (COPH), are principal investigators in a study examining whether PTSD can be passed from one generation to another. Clarisse Musanabaganwa, a visiting scholar from the University of Rwanda, has recently come to the COPH to join in the research efforts.

The researchers are looking at both Tutsi women who were pregnant and exposed to trauma during the Rwandan genocide and their offspring. These mothers and their children will be compared to ethnically matched women who were pregnant at the time of the genocide but were not in Rwanda. The children of these mothers will also be included in the study.

The project is funded by the NIH and Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa), a genomics research program with the goal of improving the health of African populations. “The compelling scientific question here,” said Uddin, “is whether or not what one is exposed to while in utero persists after birth. We want to know if we come into this world as a clean slate, and while we’d like to think we do, the reality is that probably a lot of things about us have been decided before we even leave the womb.”

Monica Uddin, PhD, (left) attends a dinner hosted by the H3Africa consortium in Accra, Ghana, where she recently presented updates on the ongoing research in Rwanda. Pictured with her are Dr. Eugene Rutembesa (center), a co-investigator on the grant, and Susan Rudahindwa, part of the USF research team. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Monica Uddin)

Wildman takes the notion a step further.

“People are very interested in understanding why they do certain things and why they feel certain ways,” he added. “They’re looking for answers. This is true not only in Rwanda but around the world in communities that have been exposed to violence and trauma.”

Studies on rodents seem to indicate that PTSD can be passed to offspring, but—because brain tissue has to be accessed and examined—doing the same sort of research on humans is problematic. For now the researchers are looking at blood samples and making inferences. “We’re studying DNA methylation,” explained Uddin, “which is a chemical tag that can turn genes ‘on’ but not enough to change the DNA.”

Derek Wildman, PhD, and Clarisse Musanabaganwa, a doctoral candidate at USF and the University of Rwanda, prepare blood samples in the lab. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Wildman)

While Uddin and Wildman acknowledge that they are decades away from developing an accurate DNA methylation profile that can predict who’s at risk for PTSD after in utero exposure to trauma and who’s resilient, an immediate goal of the project is to share their data collection.

“The samples we’re collecting can be used to study heart disease and diabetes and other disorders, because humans don’t just have one thing going on with them,” commented Wildman. “The idea is to build on all these different studies across the continent and get a really strong picture of what’s going on in Africa, especially since Africans are dying less often from infectious diseases and more often from the chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, that we suffer from here in the United States.”

“If we look at things like genetic risks for disease right now, it’s all built on European populations,” said Uddin. “But if we’re going to identify who might get something like cardiovascular disease in Africa, well, our study can help with that. That’s the immediate return in terms of public health.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health