The number of days an expectant mother was deprived of electricity during Quebec’s Ice Storm (1998) predicts the epigenetic profile of her child, a new study finds.
Scientists from the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and McGill University have detected a distinctive ‘signature’ in the DNA of children born in the aftermath of the massive Quebec ice storm. Five months after the event, researchers recruited women who had been pregnant during the disaster and assessed their degrees of hardship and distress in a study called Project Ice Storm.
Thirteen years later, the researchers found that DNA within the T cells — a type of immune system cell — of 36 children showed distinctive patterns in DNA methylation. The researchers concluded for the first time that maternal hardship, predicted the degree of methylation of DNA in the T cells. The “epigenetic” signature plays a role in the way the genes express themselves. This study is also the first to show that it is the objective stress exposure (such as days without electricity) and not the degree of emotional distress in pregnant women that causes long lasting changes in the epigenome of their babies.
What’s interesting is the use of the measure, “days without electricity,” a reasonable measure of distress in a society where everyone assumes you can “plug in” something, and few pregnant women would make plans for any alternative:
When the ice storms of January 1998 plunged more than 3 million Quebecers into darkness for as long as 45 days, the team seized the opportunity to study the effects of stress on pregnant women, their pregnancies, and their unborn children. The team has been following a group of about 150 families, in which the mother was pregnant during the ice storm or became pregnant shortly thereafter, in order to observe the immediate effects of different levels and types of stress on the unborn children. It continues to follow these children, who are now teenagers.
In principle, epigenetics makes sense. But we mustn’t get carried away: A well-known problem in medical settings is that people who have developed a serious disorder or given birth to a child who has one will sometimes overinterpret acts or events that they fear might have caused it.
The truth is, we only know statistical averages, not verdicts in individual cases. The two sources of information cannot simply be conflated. However, studies like this—where we have extensive information about the actual conditions— may be helpful in shedding light on statistical averages.
Note: I (O’Leary for News) was writing for Canadian property and casualty insurance media at the time. It was something else. Ice storms are way worse than snowstorms.
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