Scientists from the USF Genomics Program and the Center for Global Health and Infectious Disease Research have taken an important step in providing the people of Rwanda with the scientific tools they need to address mental health issues resulting from the 1994 genocides of the Tutsi ethnic group.
In a first-of-its-kind study, Professors Monica Uddin and Derek Wildman of the College of Public Health examined the entire genomes of Tutsi women who were pregnant and living in Rwanda at the time of the genocide and their offspring and compared their DNA to others Tutsi women who were pregnant at the same time and their offspring, who lived in other parts of the world.
In the study published in Epigenomics, they found that the terror of genocide was associated with chemical changes in the DNA of genocide-exposed women and their offspring. Many of these changes occurred in genes previously implicated in the risk of mental disorders such as PTSD and depression. These findings suggest that, unlike genetic mutations, these “epigenetic” chemical changes may have a rapid response to trauma across generations.
“Epigenetics refers to stable, yet reversible, chemical modifications to DNA that help control the function of a gene,” Uddin said. “These can occur in a shorter time frame than necessary to alter the underlying DNA sequence of genes. Our study found that prenatal exposure to genocide was associated with an epigenetic pattern suggesting gene function reduced in offspring.
The team, which includes Clarisse Musanabaganwa, a visiting researcher from the University of Rwanda, and her colleagues, reached their conclusion after examining the DNA of blood samples from 59 people – about half exposed personally or exposed in utero to genocide. Exposure is defined as being impacted by genocide-related trauma, such as rape or evasion of capture, witnessing a murder or serious attack with a weapon, and seeing corpses and mutilated bodies.
The new study is part of a larger consortium, Human, Heredity & Health in Africa (H3), which is funded by the National Institutes of Health. This is an effort to empower African genomics scientists, increasing their independence and capacity to build the infrastructure needed to improve genetic studies across the continent and ultimately better capture human genome data. worldwide.
“The Rwandans who are taking part in this study and the community at large really want to know what happened to them because there are a lot of PTSD and other mental health disorders in Rwanda and people want answers about why. why they have these feelings and have these issues,” Wildman said.
Although this study specifically examines the impact of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, it supports previous studies that show that what happens during pregnancy when one is a fetus can have long-term impacts – with many symptoms only appearing later in life. Such evidence demonstrates the need to redouble our efforts to protect the safety and emotional and psychological well-being of pregnant women.
The researchers point out that people who were in utero during the genocide are starting to have children of their own, and they hope to see soon whether or not this trauma had an epigenetic impact on the third generation. They are now awaiting a new, larger batch of DNA samples to find out how trauma can impact the risk of specific mental health conditions, like PTSD.
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