Exploring the epigenetics of resilience

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To do good science, we must include diverse perspectives, work across disciplines, and think outside the box while remembering that our purpose as scientists is to serve humanity. I share my story to encourage others to trust their intuition and have the courage to see what everyone else sees, but to think what no one thought.

I am a genetics researcher focusing on ethnic Circassian and Chechen populations, with an emphasis on building community trust. I conducted my PhD research as a Fulbright student at the University of Iowa in the United States. My passion for science is what motivated me to study to become a scientist, even after being married and having four children. Today, I am a Full Professor of Molecular Cell Biology at the Hashemite University of Jordan.

Credit: Taghyeer Organization

My hands-on experience working with different populations led me to pursue a project, with Catherine Panter-Brick of Yale University, evaluating a psychosocial intervention for stress reduction in Syrian refugees and Jordanian children implemented by the international non-governmental organization (INGO) Mercy Corps. Our objective was to evaluate biomarkers associated with stress (such as the hormone cortisol), immunological markers of stress and certain genes associated with stress (such as MOAO), as well as DNA methylation patterns. This study involved working within an interdisciplinary team spanning genetics, mental health, and public health. So, while working on this project, I was introduced to mental health research, including the study of stress, trauma, and resilience.1,2,3,4,5,6,7. The level of reading and learning required to gain expertise in this new field felt like doing another PhD. However, the really cool thing was that because I was naïve in this area, I had a license to ask questions that made seasoned scientists rethink their own assumptions. This, to me, is why interdisciplinarity is important: there needs to be diversity to allow for different perspectives that not only enrich research, but also enable innovation and creativity, leading to better science.

As I was thinking about the different aspects of this research project, I had an inspiration. I am half-Syrian myself and have met many survivors of trauma and war, including relatives who have lived through years of oppression under the Syrian regime. The question of how trauma affects subsequent generations has always interested me. By combining my expertise in genetics with my community connections, I had at hand the opportunity to test the concept of transmission of epigenetic markers across generations, which is still a contested issue and one that interests me personally.

I knew there had been a massacre in the Syrian city of Hama in 1980. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed or imprisoned or forced to flee, including my own parents, who had slept in our house in Amman. I wanted to know if pregnant mothers exposed to trauma during the 1980 massacre had an epigenetic signature that could be passed on to their daughters and granddaughters. Because of my membership in this community and my knowledge of history, I was able to recruit a suitable cohort to explore this question. Leveraging the strengths of interdisciplinary research, I have established collaborations with Catherine Panter-Brick as a mental health expert to assess behavior change, and Connie Mulligan and Alexandra Binder to assist in epigenetic analysis, as we don’t have the facilities to perform epigenetic analysis in Jordan. We are currently analyzing the data and hope to be able to share the results soon.

One important thing I have emphasized for this project is that the analyzes not only explore how people were negatively impacted by trauma, but also how they survived and thrived; I also wanted to see the positive side. How was resilience promoted and was there an epigenetic pattern correlated to resilience? At first, this positive lens met with resistance. Many were against it because they feared someone would use our research to celebrate trauma by claiming it improves resilience. As a scientist, I think you have to be objective and study all aspects. If there are concerns about how our research will be perceived or used, we must be careful in how we present the results and interpret the data, but we must not stop doing science altogether.

Fast forward to a few years later, and an article8 proposing a model for an epigenetic role in psychological resilience was published, talking precisely about what I had suggested and what had been opposed by some of my colleagues years before. That, to me, was a testament to the value of trusting my intuition and not taking no for an answer. After all, isn’t that how most cutting-edge science happens?

This new perspective of adopting a positive outlook to help humanity is much needed in today’s world, which has been rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope that our work on epigenetics and resilience will have an impact in the future on understanding the mechanisms of human development and disease to enable better prevention and therapeutic interventions.

The references

  1. Panter-Brick, C. et al. Confl. Health. 1440 (2020).

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  3. Chen, A. et al. Child Dev. 901856–1865 (2019).

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  4. Dajani, R. et al. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 89138-146 (2018).

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  5. Clukay, CJ et al. PLOS ONE 14e0219385 (2019).

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  6. Panter-Brick, C. et al. Child. Dev. 891803–1820 (2018).

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  7. Panter-Brick, C. et al. J. Child Psychol. Psychiatrist. 59523-541 (2018).

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  8. Smeeth, D. et al. Lancet Psychiatrist. 8620–629 (2021).

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Correspondence with Rana Dajani.

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The author declares no competing interests.

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Dajani, R. Exploring the epigenetics of resilience.
Nat Genet (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41588-022-01050-x

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