New research has revealed that women who survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide passed down the psychological trauma to their offspring via chemically modified DNA.
For the first time, researchers have analyzed the generational effects of the Rwandan genocide on Tutsi women and their offspring. Scientists at the University of Florida and the University of Rwanda analyzed entire genomes of Tutsi women pregnant during the 1994 genocide, along with that of their resulting offspring. The researchers then compared the DNA to pregnant Tutsi women living in other countries at the time of the genocide.
In 1962, Rwanda gained independence from Belgian colonialism and the ethnic majority group Hutus came into power. The minority ethnic group, Tutsis, had previously ruled the country but under Hutu rule, they faced widespread racial discrimination. However, in 1994 a plane carrying Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana went down and things escalated to unimaginable horrors. Thus, began a 100 day long Rwandan Civil War. Hutu nationalists conducted a campaign of violence against Tutsi men, women, and children. The events of the 1994 Rwandan genocide left almost a million people dead. Moreover, Tutsi women became targets of sexual violence by Hutu men. It is estimated that 150,000 to 250,000 women were raped during the genocide. Although ethnic violence caused significant mental health outcomes in survivors, the reason behind the psychological trauma has largely been unclear.
Epigenetic Changes Reduce Gene Function in Offspring
The team looked at blood samples from 59 individuals exposed to genocide-related trauma, either in-utero or personally. According to the study published in Epigenomics, trauma from the genocide resulted in chemical modifications to the DNA of genocide-exposed women and their offspring. Moreover, the changes occurred in genes that have previously been implicated in depression and PTSD. Thus, revealing that trauma-related epigenetic modifications can have a rapid generational effect.
These results further support previous studies that have linked maternal trauma to long-term impact in offspring.
Musanabaganwa, Clarisse, et al. “Leukocyte Methylomic Imprints of Exposure to the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda: A Pilot Epigenome-Wide Analysis.” Epigenomics, vol. 14, no. 1, 2022, pp. 11–25., doi:10.2217/epi-2021-0310.