By Tanja Taljaard, Aug. 2017
Genes predispose our sensitivity to the stress and stimuli of our childhood environments
‘Orchid’ and ‘Dandelion’ Children
The Swedish idiom maskrosbarn, a “dandelion child”, and orkidebarn, an “orchid child” is used by developmental specialists to describe a new genetic concept in child development. A dandelion can survive and flourish in most environments. The orchid however, is far more vulnerable and needs protection and shelter to allow it to thrive and flower.
Duke University research scientists have identified the NR3C1 gene variant that links increased vulnerability to stress and environmental sensitivity, to these “orchid” children. Cortisol is a hormone which regulates a wide range of processes throughout the body and is directly involved in the stress response. The NR3C1 gene variant influences the activity of a receptor to which cortisol binds. Increase an individual’s exposure to stress and you increase their levels of cortisol. As this genetic marker is activated in an individual, it can remain ‘switched on’ for future generations.
A dandelion can survive and flourish in most environmentsA dandelion can survive and flourish in most environments.
Rachel Yehuda, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, discovered that survivors of the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks who were pregnant and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, gave birth to children with significantly higher levels of cortisol. Her findings were mirrored in the children of Holocaust survivors and again these heightened levels of cortisol were recorded in the children of Dutch women who endured the famine of the 1940’s.
Fascinating studies have been done on these epigenetic “marks” we inherit from past generations. These genes can be switched on or off depending on certain environmental factors. Epigenetics is a change in our genetic activity without changing our genetic code. Perhaps the strongest evidence supporting epigenetics to date, has come from olfactory experiments on mice. Researchers gave male lab mice electric shocks every time they were exposed to a certain smell. Eventually these mice ‘shuddered’ at the slightest trace of the affecting smell. Surprisingly, their offspring and their offspring’s offspring, displayed heightened levels of agitation when exposed to the same smell without ever receiving any shocks. The results suggest that this fear of a specific scent passes into the sperm of the mice through a chemical process, leaving epigenetic marks that aren’t erased in the womb. Some reporters have likened it to a “memory” being passed down the generations.
Although inherited epigenetic changes aren’t completely predictable in human beings, it has wide-ranging, powerful effects on many aspects of human biology and enormous potential in human medicine. How can we apply this knowledge of genetic predisposition and inherited biological memory? Can it help those suffering from past generation’s trauma to understand their ability to deal with stress? Can it help the “dandelions” with greater emotional resilience to understand the sensitivity of the “orchids”?
Emotional resilience through nurturing, loving-kindness, empathy and social connectionEmotional resilience through nurturing, loving-kindness, empathy and social connection.
Studies at Duke University have shown that ‘orchid’ children become more resilient through nurturing, loving-kindness, empathy and social connection.
Furthermore, research suggests that simply witnessing an act of loving-kindness can be good for you. Meaningful social connection and inclusion is a vital ingredient for overall wellbeing, actually lowering the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Empathy is known to increase pro-social behaviours and the unconditional acceptance of self and others. Awareness and education on how to establish positive environments for children and the community is essential.
We can change how genes express themselves and benefit future generations in the process.