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Epigenetic, neural and cognitive memories of traumatic stress and violence

Final Report Summary - MEMOTV (Epigenetic, neural and cognitive memories of traumatic stress and violence)

MemoTV stands for ‘Memories of Traumatic Stress and Violence.’ This project was inspired by survivors of extreme conflict and war who described the manner in which their worst experiences are often processed as tantamount to the forced viewing of unwanted, terrifying re-runs, often in fragmented clips. MemoTV was designed to extend beyond the confines of scientific and academic communities to provide tangible, accessible, research based interventions and resources to crisis stricken populations around the world. The scientific investigations of MemoTV have been implemented with two trajectories: (1) clinical treatment and laboratory investigations of traumatised asylum seekers in Germany, and (2) epidemiological investigations and clinical therapeutic work in war and crisis regions located in South Africa, Burundi and Brazil.

MemoTV operates on the foundation that trauma-related mental illness is a consequence of the organisation of memory rather than a typical anxiety disorder caused by fear conditioning alone. More specifically, MemoTV has elaborated upon and further confirmed the role of associative memory in trauma-related disorders. Victims of war, torture and natural catastrophes are prone to develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These individuals experience the recurrent, involuntary intrusion of traumatic memories. MemoTV investigated the neurocognitive mechanisms driving this memory disorder and demonstrated that PTSD symptoms are related to deficits in the effective control of memory retrieval. Deficits in voluntary forgetting were clinically relevant since they correlated with memory intrusions in everyday life. Magnetoencephalography (MEG) recorded during suppression attempts revealed that PTSD patients were unable to downregulate signatures of sensory long-term memory traces in the gamma frequency band (70-120 Hz), suggesting that the inability to suppress unwanted memories through modulation of gamma activity is related to PTSD symptom severity. These and other investigations led to the elaboration of an etiological model of trauma-related disorders that highlights the association of various threatening experiences as forming an interconnected memory that, when triggered, may be perceived as a threat in the here and now.

MemoTV has also developed the concept of appetitive aggression and successfully developed and tested new treatments. Our investigations and theoretical models demonstrate that the inherent lust for appetitive violence is a fundamental part of human nature. A latent passion for fighting and dominance can be evoked in almost all men and in at least some women and can snowball into a catastrophic outcome of groups, tribes or communities utilizing this aggression and its associated desire for war and destruction as means to attempt to extinguish entire ethnic groups. In particular, this project was the first to demonstrate and examine appetitive aggression in females. Concurrently, this was also the first study on the possibility of preventing trauma-related suffering (in soldiers of a peace core) by using a shortened adaptation of the NET technique.

Finally, MemoTV demonstrated epigenetic changes resulting from early-life stress and stress of the pregnant mother and, most notably, even the pregnant grandmother: Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is a serious threat to women’s mental health and violates human rights on a global scale. The most detrimental form of IPV targets pregnant women, where not only the mother is affected, but also the unborn child. By using a combination of psychiatric and epigenetic measurements, MemoTV presents the first, strong evidence that prenatal IPV has completely inversed consequences in children of violent communities, compared to matched children in non-violent communities. Additionally, we give substantial evidence that this is driven by a reprogramming of the HPA-axis. The epigenetic status suggest that prenatal IPV exposed children in violent communities have better stress-tolerance compared to controls, which is further supported by psychiatric data and estimates of heterochromatin. Our findings are strong, clear and well powered. It should raise the general awareness and scientific interest on the mental health of women and children living in neglected populations characterized by poverty and violence. By combining social psychiatry, evolutionary biology, genomics and bioinformatics we have broken new grounds in psychiatric research.