Stress contagion: from parents to the child?

Greg Downey at the excellent Neuroanthroplogy blog comments on a recent article by Mary Caserta, on the relationship between parental stress and illness in the children and the child’s immune response. What the research team found was that :

Family processes have a substantial impact on children’s social and emotional well-being, but little is known about the effects of family stress on children’s physical health. To begin to identify potential links between family stress and health in children, we examined associations between specific aspects of family psychosocial stress and the frequency of illnesses in children, measures of innate and adaptive immune function, and human herpesvirus 6 (HHV-6) reactivation

Greg, thinks of several possible reasons for this association:

  1. Stressed out parents interact differently with their children and stress them.
  2. Mirror neurons or similar systems may underlie the fact that the child may be mirroring the internal stressed environment of the parent and consequently feeling stressed.
  3. Chemical mechanisms including pheromones released on being stressed (!!) may be at work and responsible for the contagion.
  4. Reverse causation: the stick children may be causing the parents to feel more stressed.

I find all the above explanations (except 3) interesting and plausible, but Greg has also ignored another potential reason. Being an anthropologist he has overlooked the genetic aspect. What if some underlying gene which endows the parent to feel more stressed is also responsible for the children being more susceptible to illness/ having more auto-immune response. After all the stress system and immune system are very much cloistered together. It is not hard to imagine that a gene that causes vulnerability to stress( or felling stressed) also increases sensitivity to environmental pathogens and sensitivity of immune response. As the child is sharing 50 % of the gene of the parent, there is a great likelihood that the sensitivity to stress and sensitivity to pathogens may be inherited in the same manner. Food for thought.

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