ZANETA THAYER, then a student at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, received funding in April 2011 to aid research on 'Intergenerational Programming of Stress Reactivity: The Role of Epigenetic Mechanisms,' supervised by Dr. Christopher Kuzawa. Anthropologists have a long history of studying biological responses to environmental stress from diverse perspectives. Within our field the effects of maternal psychosocial stress on biology and health in the next generation is becoming a topic of increased interest. This research project evaluated the intergenerational effects of maternal stress experience among an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse sample of pregnant women from Auckland, New Zealand. Women who had lower socioeconomic status and who experienced ethnic discrimination had higher evening cortisol in late pregnancy and gave birth to infants with elevated cortisol reactivity and altered gene regulation (methylation) profiles. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that maternal social environment impacts maternal and offspring biology. Notably, the types of stress exposures that impacted cortisol in the present study are relatively novel from an evolutionary perspective. Thus the evolved capacity for an intergenerational transfer of information could be maladaptive in the contemporary ecology when activated in response to structural inequalities within society. Future research evaluating diverse sources of stress and a range of biological responses in offspring are necessary to clarify whether modifications in offspring biology reflect adaptation or biological impairment.
Dissertation Fieldwork Grant
Thayer, Zaneta Marie, Northwestern U., Evanston, IL - To aid research on 'Intergenerational Programming of Stress Reactivity: Role of Epigenetic Mechanisms,' supervised by Dr. Christopher Kuzawa