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Can Parental Stress Impact the Health of Future Generations?

A new review published in Biology Letters of The Royal Society examines the long-term impacts of exposure to stressors during development. The review by Dr. Britt Heidinger, North Dakota State University, Fargo, and Dr. Mark Haussmann, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, looks at whether the effect of stressors on parents lingers to impact the health of their offspring.

Studies have shown that exposure to stressors accelerates the aging process. “When parents are exposed to stressors, the lifespans of their offspring and even grand offspring are often reduced. But why this happens is not well understood,” said Heidinger. The researchers’ paper reviews evidence that telomeres might play an important role in the process.

Telomeres are highly conserved, repetitive sections of DNA at the end of chromosomes. Together with other proteins, telomeres form protective caps at chromosome ends, which function a little bit like the plastic ends on shoelaces, to protect the laces from fraying.

During cell division and in response to stressors, telomeres get shorter while protecting the other DNA on the chromosome. Once telomeres get too short, cells stop dividing and do not function properly, which is expected to contribute to a decline in tissue function with age.

“Understanding how stress in the parental generation influences the telomere dynamics of subsequent generations will be important for predicting how early adversity impacts human health and how changing environmental conditions will influence animal populations,” said Haussmann.

Image shows a family in shadows.

Studies have shown that exposure to stressors accelerates the aging process. Image is for illustrative purposes only.

The review published in Biology Letters synthesizes many human and animal studies to identify current gaps in knowledge and recommend new avenues for discovery.

“There is evidence in humans, other mammals, and birds that parental stress exposure has a negative impact on the telomeres of their offspring,” said Heidinger. “However, these effects can vary among developmental stages, among individuals, and among tissues within individuals and we need to know more about what causes these differences.”

About this psychology research

Dr. Britt Heidinger, assistant professor of biological sciences, joined NDSU in 2013. She received her doctorate degree in evolution, ecology and behavior from Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, and a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Minnesota, Duluth. She also served as a National Science Foundation postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Glasgow, United Kingdom. Her research has been published in Behavioral Ecology, Proceedings of the Royal Society, Functional Ecology, and in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Mark Haussmann, associate professor of biology, joined Bucknell in 2008. He received his doctorate degree in ecology, evolution, and organismal biology from Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, and a bachelor’s degree in biology from the Wartburg College. Last year he served as a Leverhulme Visiting Fellow and Professor at the University of Glasgow, United Kingdom. His research has been published in Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biology Letters, and Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Source: North Dakota State University
Image Source: The image is in the public domain
Original Research: Full open access research for “Telomere dynamics may link stress exposure and ageing across generations” by Mark F. Haussmann and Britt J. Heidinger in Biology Letters. Published online November 4 2015 doi:10.1098/rsbl.2015.0396


Abstract

Telomere dynamics may link stress exposure and ageing across generations

Although exposure to stressors is known to increase disease susceptibility and accelerate ageing, evidence is accumulating that these effects can span more than one generation. Stressors experienced by parents have been reported to negatively influence the longevity of their offspring and even grand offspring. The mechanisms underlying these long-term, cross-generational effects are still poorly understood, but we argue here that telomere dynamics are likely to play an important role. In this review, we begin by surveying the current connections between stress and telomere dynamics. We then lay out the evidence that exposure to stressors in the parental generation influences telomere dynamics in offspring and potentially subsequent generations. We focus on evidence in mammalian and avian studies and highlight several promising areas where our understanding is incomplete and future investigations are critically needed. Understanding the mechanisms that link stress exposure across generations requires interdisciplinary studies and is essential to both the biomedical community seeking to understand how early adversity impacts health span and evolutionary ecologists interested in how changing environmental conditions are likely to influence age-structured population dynamics.

“Telomere dynamics may link stress exposure and ageing across generations” by Mark F. Haussmann and Britt J. Heidinger in Biology Letters. Published online November 4 2015 doi:10.1098/rsbl.2015.0396

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