What if a history of hardship and violence was written into your DNA? This controversial research field explores biology and gene expression to explore the implications of inter-generational trauma.
Few research fields are as captivating as those attempting to map the landscape of the human psyche. With recent advancements in artificial intelligence, renewed focus on mental health, and increased questioning into human consciousness, our eyes remain inwardly fixed on a final frontier that lies, quite literally, beyond the reach of our collective imagination.
Although we can trace the connection between emotion and physical well-being as far back as the second-century, Western medicine has historically treated the mind and the body as two very separate entities. Patient interest in alternative medicine and homeopathic remedies increased dramatically around the turn of the 21st century, and encouraged further research into the mind-body connection. Recent developments in this research give way to questions of how the brain relates to the body that houses it, and invite us to look closer at our bodies and the stories they carry (2).
These questions relate to topics such as the location of memory storage in the body, and how it is that we can experience emotions in a physical way. One of the most interesting scientific developments from this century is the idea that certain traumatic experiences can affect us on a molecular level. Epigenetics considers the effects of trauma on gene expression, and how these changes in the genome can be passed down to our children. Thanks to archeologists and anthropologists, we know that our bodies tell stories of trauma, resilience, and transformation after we die. Now, recent findings ask us to consider whether that trauma might have preceded our birth.
Oakley Ray, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Psychiatry and Pharmacology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, explained the mind-body paradigm very simply by saying that “there is no real division between mind and body because of networks of communication that exist between the brain and neurological, endocrine and immune systems”. (1) It may sound startlingly obvious now, but only in the last four decades has the increased evidence for the critical role of the mind in healing the body given way to more widespread credence for mind-body medicine (2).
As modern medicine continues to explore the mind-body connection, the emerging field of epigenetics poses important questions about our family histories, particularly in regard to intensely traumatic experiences. The idea goes that certain behavioral and environmental experiences can be enough to alter gene expression. Recent studies have uncovered evidence to suggest that the lasting impacts of trauma may be inherited through molecular memory, and subsequently passed on to future generations (3). Whether or not this is true can have serious implications for the mental and physical health of generations to come.
Rachel Yehuda is a professor of neuroscience and psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine, as well as the director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the Mental Health Patient Care Center at the James J. Peters VA Medical Center in New York City. She is pioneering the study of the biological transmission of trauma, and her research into epigenetics and generational trauma has centered around veterans, Holocaust survivors, and pregnant women who experienced the September 11 attacks. Her research seeks to understand the secondary effects of trauma for children who never directly experienced the event itself, and whether a parent’s traumatic experience can cause a child to be more likely to develop psychiatric disorders later in life.
Dr. Yehuda’s research on trauma survivors and their offspring revealed two different categories of epigenetically transmitted effects. The first set occurs after conception, and arises from certain developmental factors in the offspring’s environment, from prenatal exposure to the caregiver’s stress to postnatal experiences while being cared for by a survivor of trauma. The second category involves epigenetic changes associated with parental trauma occurring before conception. Her findings confirmed epigenetic transmission of stress effects in animals and highlighted the need for longitudinal, multi-generational studies to determine whether those same mechanisms could be proven in humans (3).
Perhaps the most important part of this study takes into account that the epigenetic transmissibility of trauma refers to inherited changes in the genome that may or may not be expressed depending on environmental factors. The DNA sequence itself is not altered and no genetic mutation actually takes place. If environmental factors can induce the expression of inherited trauma, they might also be able to reverse it. Isabelle Mansuy is Professor of Neuroepigenetics at the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich. Her team of researchers carried out a study in 2016 that demonstrated that environmental enrichment not only effectively reversed symptoms of trauma in mice, but also prevented the transmission of the trauma expression to the offspring. At least in mice, epigenetic alterations were proven correctable through environmental enrichment (4).
Despite its continued advancement, the science behind these findings remains young and is passionately contested by those who believe the excitement and novelty surrounding the findings might contribute to a lowered standard for testing and proof. After all, how does a mark created by trauma survive the genetic unfolding that takes place from a fertilized egg into a fully formed human body? Dr. Yehuda concedes it may be a while before we know for certain. Given the ethical constraints of studies involving trauma, as well as the methodological challenges of studying multiple generations, it may be many years before controlled studies are able to advance epigenetic research.
However preliminary it might be, this research provides knowledge that might help to change and enrich our approach to mental health treatment, provide framework for disaster-stricken and war-torn communities to heal, and arm survivors and their families with a more robust understanding of how to approach their shared trauma with agency and hope.
1. RAY, O. (2004), The Revolutionary Health Science of Psychoendoneuroimmunology: A New Paradigm for Understanding Health and Treating Illness. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1032: 35-51. doi:10.1196/annals.1314.00
2. Brower V. (2006). Mind-body research moves towards the mainstream. EMBO reports, 7(4), 358–361. doi:10.1038/sj.embor.7400671
3. Yehuda, R. and Lehrner, A. (2018), Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: putative role of epigenetic mechanisms. World Psychiatry, 17: 243-257. doi:10.1002/wps.20568
4. Katharina Gapp, Johannes Bohacek, Jonas Grossmann, Andrea M Brunner, Francesca Manuella, Paolo Nanni, Isabelle M Mansuy. Potential of Environmental Enrichment to Prevent Transgenerational Effects of Paternal Trauma. Neuropsychopharmacology, 2016; DOI: 10.1038/npp.2016.87m
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