Could the most stressful, traumatic, experiences of your parents or grandparents be passed onto you genetically? It is a controversial concept that is only beginning to be explored. It is called epigenetic inheritance and there are some studies that suggest that it exists.
A research team at New York’s Mount Sinai hospital explored the concept of epigenetic inheritance via a genetic study of 32 Jewish men and women who survived the holocaust. These people had either been interred in a Nazi concentration camp, had witnessed or experienced torture, or had to hide during WWII. The study was led by Rachel Yehuda.
The researchers focused on one region of a gene that is associated with the regulation of stress hormones. That region of that particular gene is known to be affected by trauma. It is obvious that the 32 people in the study had experienced significant trauma. It would make sense for the researchers to discover that something had changed in region of the gene that was being studied in the group that was involved in the study.
What about their children? The people in the study had children who had never been interred in a Nazi concentration camp, who had never witnessed or experienced torture, and who had never had to hide during WWII. One would assume that the specific region of the gene the researchers were focusing on would be “normal”.
The researchers took a look at the gene in the children of the people who were in the study. They also looked at the same gene in people who were the offspring of Jewish families who lived outside of Europe during WWII. Doing so gave the researchers a basis of comparison.
What was discovered was that the offspring of Jewish people who experienced trauma during WWII, and the offspring of Jewish people whose parents did not live in Europe during WWII, had a genetic difference. Those whose parents were traumatized during WWII had a change in the gene that the researchers were focusing on. That change matched the change their parents had.
Why does this matter? It isn’t unheard of for parents, who have altered or mutated genes, to pass those genes to their children. This is how genetically heritable diseases and conditions occur.
The thing to consider is that the parents started out with a “normal” version of the gene that the researchers were studying. Their offspring should have inherited a “normal” version of that gene. Instead, they received the “injured” version that their parents developed. This study adds to the growing research that suggests that epigenetic inheritance could be affecting the children of people who had been severely traumatized.
Image by Duncan Hull on Flickr
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