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    Intergenerational Trauma: Epigenetics and Inherited Emotional Stress

    Intergenerational trauma involves the inherited transmission of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Epigenetics may explain why trauma is passed from one generation to the next.


    How Does Intergenerational Trauma Work?

    How Does Intergenerational Trauma Work? Definitions, studies, and examples

    By Kathi Valeii Updated on September 04, 2021

    Medically reviewed by Adjoa Smalls-Mantey, MD, DPhil

    Table of Contents

    Definition of Intergenerational Trauma

    Research Findings

    Associated Conditions

    How to Cope

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Intergenerational trauma is the theory that trauma can be inherited because there are genetic changes in a person’s DNA. The changes from trauma do not damage the gene (genetic change). Instead, they alter how the gene functions (epigenetic change).

    Epigenetic changes do not alter the DNA sequence; they change how your body reads the DNA sequence.1

    Epigenetics is the study of the effects that environment and behavior have on genes. For example, in 2008, researchers found an association between prenatal exposure to famine and an offspring’s later adult disease risk. The offspring in the study had less DNA methylation (a biological process that controls how genes are expressed) of the imprinted IGF2 gene.2 Additional studies have supported the idea that an ancestor’s exposure to trauma may impact future generations.

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    Fiordaliso/Getty Images

    What Is Trauma?

    Even so, the science of epigenetics is still in its infancy. Further research is needed to definitively say whether a parent's—or even grandparent’s—trauma can be passed down generationally. Here is an overview of what is known about the theory of intergenerational trauma.

    What Is Intergenerational Trauma?

    Trauma is a person's emotional response to a tragic event (for example, accidents, sexual violence, and natural disasters). Long-term trauma is marked by having flashbacks, unpredictable emotions, and physical symptoms like nausea and headaches.3

    Intergenerational trauma is the theory that a trauma that is experienced by one person in a family—for example, a parent or grandparent—can be passed down to future generations because of the way that trauma epigenetically alters genes.

    While epigenetic studies have found correlations between prenatal and preconception trauma and gene methylation in offspring, not all scientists agree with the findings.

    Childhood Neglect Could Leave Generational Imprint


    A 2015 study on Holocaust exposure and intergenerational effects found an association between preconception trauma and epigenetic alterations in the parent and the offspring.4 However, the study was criticized because of its small sample size and because the researchers studied blood and a small subset of genes.

    A more general criticism is that social epigeneticists make far-reaching claims by focusing on epigenetics in biology and ignoring established facts about genetics and cell biology.

    Critics also assert that unresolved questions—such as the role of DNA methylation in regulating gene activity—are treated by epigenetic researchers as a given.5

    Epigenetics and Trauma Research

    The field of epigenetics is focused on how behaviors and the environment influence the way your genes work.1 Genetic changes affect which proteins are made, and epigenetic changes affect a gene’s expression to turn genes on or off.

    Epigenetic changes can affect health in several ways.1

    Infection: Germs can change epigenetics to weaken your immune system.Cancer: Certain mutations increase your risk of cancer.Prenatal nutrition: Prenatal environment and behavior can impact a fetus’s epigenetics.

    There have been multiple observational studies on how experiencing a famine prenatally affects offspring. The researchers found a consistent correlation between prenatal exposure to famine and adult body mass index (BMI), diabetes, and schizophrenia.6

    Another study in 2018 found that the male offspring of Civil War soldiers who spent time as prisoners of war (POWs) were more likely to die early after age 45 than people whose fathers had not been POWs. The researchers concluded that paternal stress could affect future generations and that the impact may occur through epigenetic channels.7

    Parenting vs. Epigenetics

    The Civil War study acknowledged that in addition to epigenetics, the transmission of trauma might be influenced by cultural, psychological, or socioeconomic factors.7

    In other words, kids whose parents experienced trauma are more likely to grow up with a parent who is unstable, emotionally distant, or anxious, and these parenting behaviors may also contribute to trauma that is passed down to another generation.

    Why Is There Such a High Percentage of PTSD in the Military?

    Long-Term Effects

    It's known that trauma can influence a person’s psychological, emotional, and physical health for a lifetime. If trauma can be passed down epigenetically, it would make sense that it could have the potential to affect future generations’ lives as well.8

    The potential long-term effects of trauma include:

    Emotional dysregulation

    Numbing or detachment from thoughts, behaviors, and memories

    Sleep disturbances

    Substance use disorders

    Physical symptoms, such as gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, neurological, musculoskeletal, respiratory, and dermatological symptoms


    Source : www.verywellhealth.com

    Can Trauma Be Passed Down From One Generation to the Next?

    Can parental trauma—like extreme stress from the impact of the novel coronavirus—change a child’s biology? The evidence for intergenerational trauma, while not conclusive, is growing. Here's what researchers have to say.

    Home > Trauma: It’s Not What You Think and Why THAT Matters > Can Trauma Be Passed Down From One Generation to the Next?

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    Can Trauma Be Passed Down From One Generation to the Next?

    Can Trauma Be Passed Down From One Generation to the Next? There’s some pretty strong evidence that parental trauma, like extreme stress (we’re looking right at you coronavirus) can alter how genes are passed down.

    Article by:

    Karina Margit Erdelyi

    We are living in strange times, with much of the world under quarantine for the novel coronavirus—and that’s precisely the kind of stress that may impact future offspring according to some scientists. A growing body of research suggests that trauma (like from extreme stress or starvation among many other things) can be passed from one generation to the next.

    Here’s how: Trauma can leave a chemical mark on a person’s genes, which can then be passed down to future generations. This mark doesn’t cause a genetic mutation, but it does alter the mechanism by which the gene is expressed. This alteration is not genetic, but epigenetic.

    We spoke with Dr. Chris Mason, Associate Professor at Weill Cornell Medicine, with appointments at the Tri-Institutional Program in Computational Biology and Medicine between Cornell, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Rockefeller University, and Director of the Mason Lab. He shared that “epigenetics, in simplified terms, is the study of the biological control mechanisms of DNA—the light switches that turn genes on or off. What does that mean? In essence: epigenetics control how or why your genes are expressed.”

    What would have seemed preposterous 20 years ago has become a fast-emerging field of study. Today the idea that a person’s experience could alter their biology, and behavior of their children and grandchildren has gained serious traction. Animal and some smaller human studies have shown that exposure to stressors like immense stress or cold can trigger metabolic changes in subsequent generations—and we may just be living in such a time as we grapple with the mounting COVID-19 crisis.

    So, What Exactly Are These Epigenetic Studies?

    Differences among groups who had gone through extreme physical and psychological stress, like Holocaust survivors, those who were born to parents who lived through “The Dutch Hunger Winter,” and sons of Confederate prisoner-of-war soldiers in the American Civil War, all make the case the most clearly, but they’re not the whole picture. There has also been a lot of work in the lab focused on this phenomenon, and that work really accelerated after The Human Genome Project (HGP) was completed in 2003. Here’s a look at what scientists have learned from both case studies and experiments.

    How Extreme Situations Have Impacted Offspring

    Mason shared that the field of epigenetics gained real traction about a decade ago, when scientists published seminal research on the Dutch Hunger Winter, an extended period of famine that took place towards the end of World War II when the Nazis blocked food supplies in October 1944, thrusting much of the Netherlands into famine. When the Dutch were liberated in May 1945, more than 20,000 had died of starvation. Pregnant women were particularly vulnerable; and the famine impacted the unborn children for the rest of their lives.

    Scientists found that those who had been in utero during the famine were a few pounds heavier than average. (The thinking goes that the mothers, because they were starving, automatically quieted a gene in their unborn children involved in burning the body’s fuel.) When the children reached middle age, they had higher LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and triglyceride levels. They also suffered higher rates of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and schizophrenia. When scientists looked into why, they found that these children carried a specific chemical mark—an epigenetic signature—on one of their genes.

    Dr. Rachel Yehuda, Director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, conducted a 2015 study on the children of 40 Holocaust survivors.  She found that they had epigenetic changes to a gene linked to their levels of cortisol, a hormone involved in the stress response. She also found a distinctive pattern of DNA methylation, another epigenetic marker. The study concluded that both parents and unborn children were affected on a genetic level.

    While much of Yehuda’s work has focused on the children of Holocaust survivors, she also observed that infants born to mothers who were pregnant on 9/11 had low cortisol levels, which were associated with the presence of maternal PTSD. Again, more evidence for the theory of epigenetics. Even still, she says it is “premature” to conclude that trauma can cause heritable changes and worries that research may create a bleak narrative that one generation’s trauma may permanently scar future generations.

    There’s Evidence in Other Animals, Too

    “The proof may be in the worm,” shared Mason. Hmmm. Let’s explore that one. No one would argue that decaying organic matter and rotten fruit makes for a rich trove of bacteria. In other words: a good meal for the nematode worm. But some harmful bacteria lurk in that rotting bounty, which make for a lethal meal when ingested. Unfortunately, the worms can’t always distinguish the good (nutritious) bacteria from the bad until it is too late. Still, this doesn’t stop the worms from gobbling down all of the bacteria.

    Source : www.psycom.net

    Can the legacy of trauma be passed down the generations?

    Hallucinogenic mushrooms have shown promise for their medical benefits, but we are only now beginning to understand how they might help to treat depression.

    Can the legacy of trauma be passed down the generations?

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    (Image credit: Alamy/Getty Images/BBC)

    By Martha Henriques 26th March 2019

    Our children and grandchildren are shaped by the genes they inherit from us, but new research is revealing that experiences of hardship or violence can leave their mark too.

    Article continues below


    In 1864, nearing the end of the US Civil War, conditions in the Confederate prisoner of war camps were at their worst. There was such overcrowding in some camps that the prisoners, Union Army soldiers from the north, each had the square footage of a grave. Prisoner death rates soared.

    For those who survived, the harrowing experiences marked many of them for life. They returned to society with impaired health, worse job prospects and shorter life expectancy. But the impact of these hardships did not stop with those who experienced it. It also had an effect on the prisoners’ children and grandchildren, which appeared to be passed down the male line of families.

    While their sons and grandsons had not suffered the hardships of the PoW camps – and if anything were well provided for through their childhoods – they suffered higher rates of mortality than the wider population. It appeared the PoWs had passed on some element of their trauma to their offspring.

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    But unlike most inherited conditions, this was not caused by mutations to the genetic code itself. Instead, the researchers were investigating a much more obscure type of inheritance: how events in someone’s lifetime can change the way their DNA is expressed, and how that change can be passed on to the next generation.

    This is the process of epigenetics, where the readability, or expression, of genes is modified without changing the DNA code itself. Tiny chemical tags are added to or removed from our DNA in response to changes in the environment in which we are living. These tags turn genes on or off, offering a way of adapting to changing conditions without inflicting a more permanent shift in our genomes.

    The effects of trauma may echo down several generations, from a grandfather to their son and then to their grandson (Credit: Alamy/Getty Images/BBC)

    But if these epigenetic changes acquired during life can indeed also be passed on to later generations, the implications would be huge. Your experiences during your lifetime – particularly traumatic ones – would have a very real impact on your family for generations to come. There are a growing number of studies that support the idea that the effects of trauma can reverberate down the generations through epigenetics.

    For the PoWs in the Confederate camps, these epigenetic changes were a result of the extreme overcrowding, poor sanitation and malnutrition. The men had to survive on small rations of corn, and many died from diarrhoea and scurvy.

    “There is this period of intense starvation,” says study author Dora Costa, an economist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “The men were reduced to walking skeletons.”

    The sons of PoWs had an 11% higher mortality rate than the sons of non-PoW veterans

    Costa and her colleagues studied the health records of nearly 4,600 children whose fathers had been PoWs, comparing them to just over 15,300 children of veterans of the war who had not been captured.

    The sons of PoWs had an 11% higher mortality rate than the sons of non-PoW veterans. Other factors such as the father’s socioeconomic status and the son’s job and marital status couldn’t account for the higher mortality rate, the researchers found.

    This excess mortality was mainly due to higher rates of cerebral haemorrhage. The sons of PoW veterans were also slightly more likely to die from cancer. But the daughters of former PoWs appeared to be immune to these effects.

    This unusual sex-linked pattern was one of the reasons that made Costa suspect that these health differences were caused by epigenetic changes. But first Costa and her team had to rule out that it was a genetic effect.

    For some reason, the trauma seem to be most strongly passed from fathers to their sons (Credit: Alamy/Getty Images/BBC)

    “What could have happened is that a genetic trait which enabled the father to survive the camp, a tendency toward obesity for example, was then bad during normal times,” says Costa. “However, if you look within families, there are only effects among sons born after but not before the war.”

    If it were a genetic trait then children born before and after the war would be equally likely to show the reduced life expectancy. With a genetic cause ruled out, the most plausible explanation left was an epigenetic effect.

    “The hypothesis is that there’s an epigenetic effect on the Y chromosome,” says Costa. This effect is consistent with studies in remote Swedish villages, where shortages in food supply had a generational effect down the male line, but not the female line.

    Source : www.bbc.com

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