How genes and resilience affect Syrian refugee stress

When it comes to dealing with stress and trauma, people can be dandelions or orchids. Some are steady and resistant; others are sensitive and receptive.

“But why are some people better at dealing with stressful and traumatic events?” asked Connie Mulligan, anthropological genetics professor at the University of Florida and principal investigator on the paper. “Is it genetic? Is it environmental?”  

Turns out, the short answer is “both.” Two things make you more likely to recover quicker from stress and trauma: being more resilient and having a specific DNA mutation known as the “warrior gene.” A new study of nearly 400 Syrian refugee children links both protective and genetic factors to psychosocial stress.

The study, published in PLOS ONE today, involved evaluating an eight-week stress-management intervention designed by the Mercy Corps for improving the mental health of these Middle Eastern refugees between the ages of 12 and 18. 

“We showed that the intervention worked,” said Catherine Panter-Brick, an anthropology professor at Yale University and principal investigator on the study. “But we want to understand for whom it works, how long it works and why it works. That's why we went into the cognitive, biological and psychosocial impacts of the intervention.”

Panter-Brick teamed up with Mulligan to address the problem from the genetic perspective. Mulligan specializes in the way human genetic variation affects individuals and populations.

“Your genes do far more than just determine your physical appearance,” Mulligan said. “We suspected that trauma response was also linked to genetic factors, and the ‘warrior gene’ was a good candidate to study.”

Researchers have been studying the psychological effects of monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A) for decades. The gene is found in every neuron of the brain as either high-activity or low-activity variations. The low-activity mutation has been shown to be an indicator for a higher risk of aggression and antisocial behavior, specifically in males.

Mulligan tested the DNA of the Syrian refugee children at three time points over a year to see whether there was any relationship between gene expression and different measures of psychosocial stress and mental health. She found that males with low-activity MAO-A, the “warrior gene,” had the biggest drop in perceived stress.

Meanwhile, Panter-Brick developed and distributed a survey to the same kids at the same time points to evaluate their resilience — “the extent to which youth have resources that foster strength and hope in very difficult times,” she said. Mulligan and her graduate student Chris Clukay found that those with the highest resilience scores — those who amass the most support from their social, economic and spiritual resources — were also the most likely to see lowered perceived stress levels.

So what makes people dandelions or orchids? It seems to have roots in one’s genes and resilience, and these two factors are interactive and additive. The group with the greatest improvement in mental health had the warrior gene and also high resilience scores.

“Responses to stress, trauma and brief interventions are influenced by differences in sensitivity," Panter-Brick said. “That sensitivity is often shaped by genetic variants and developmental experiences. We all have to have that measure of toughness and that ability to bloom in us, and as we develop we modulate those facets of growth.”

Zack Savitsky July 17, 2019