The children of Holocaust survivors who were born during the Nazi persecution of the Jews are more likely to experience severe schizophrenia than those whose parents were born prior to the commencement of the atrocities.
According to a new study in the journal Schizophrenia Research, this phenomenon is probably “a result of epigenetic mechanisms”, which refers to the process by which the expression of certain genes is altered by environmental factors. For example, the study authors propose that the immense psychological trauma suffered by pregnant women during the Holocaust may have interfered with the expression of some genes in their unborn children by disrupting a process called methylation.
Alternatively, they hypothesize that maternal stress may have weakened the fetal immune system or interfered with neural development. Such developments are then likely to be passed on to future generations, which explains why people whose parents were born during the Holocaust are so much more likely to experience certain health problems.
To conduct their study, the researchers gathered data relating to 51,233 people who had been born to parents that had suffered at the hands of the Nazis. This group was then divided into those whose parents were born before the start of the Holocaust and those whose parents were exposed to the effects of the atrocities while in the womb.
Results showed that people whose parents were already born during the Holocaust were no more likely to experience a severe course of schizophrenia than those whose parents did not experience the event at all. However, those whose mothers were exposed to the event in the womb were 1.74 times more likely be repeatedly hospitalized for the condition.
Similarly, the children of mothers who experienced the Holocaust first while in the womb and then after birth were 1.48 times more likely to suffer multiple hospitalizations as a result of schizophrenia. Those whose fathers were exposed to the event as fetuses and infants also had a psychiatric rehospitalization rate that was 1.49 times higher than those whose fathers were not affected by Nazi brutality.
The researchers believe these results are likely to apply to people who have lived through other traumatic events and human disasters as well, and could therefore be used to help advise policy makers when making decisions about the treatment and healthcare of refugees.