Posts Tagged ‘epigenetics’

Part six: Epigenetic inheritances may represent the body’s attempts to prepare offspring for challenges similar to those encountered by their parents.

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“How traumatized parents interact with their children, of course, also influences their development. One of the most powerful nonfiction accounts of growing up with Holocaust survivor parents was Art Spiegelman’s serialized graphic novel Maus; it broke through a cultural barrier, helping others to open up about their suffering. Many psychologists and neuroscientists have examined the traumatized family, finding ever more subtleties, and the story will continue to unfold for decades to come.

An important question is whether epigenetic alterations in stress-related genes, particularly those reflected in the offspring of traumatized parents, are necessarily markers of vulnerability or whether they may reflect a mechanism through which offspring become better equipped to cope with adversity. This is an area we’re actively exploring.

It is tempting to interpret epigenetic inheritance as a story of how trauma results in permanent damage. Epigenetic influences might nonetheless represent the body’s attempts to prepare offspring for challenges similar to those encountered by their parents. As circumstances change, however, the benefits conferred by such alterations may wane or even result in the emergence of novel vulnerabilities. Thus, the survival advantage of this form of intergenerational transmission depends in large part on the environment encountered by the offspring themselves.

Moreover, some of these stress-related and intergenerational changes may be reversible. Several years ago we discovered that combat veterans with PTSD who benefited from cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy showed treatment-induced changes in FKBP5 methylation. The finding confirmed that healing is also reflected in epigenetic change. And Dias and Ressler reconditioned their mice to lose their fear of cherry blossoms; the offspring conceived after this “treatment” did not have the cherry blossom epigenetic alteration, nor did they fear the scent. Preliminary as they are, such findings represent an important frontier in psychiatry and may suggest new avenues for treatment.

The hope is that as we learn more about the ways catastrophic experiences have shaped both those who lived through those horrors and their descendants, we will become better equipped to deal with dangers now and in the future, facing them with resolution and resilience.

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