Anxiety, Phobias: How Ancestral Memories May Influence the Risk

cherry-blossoms-coniferconifer-flickr.jpg

It has been accepted for decades that parental behavior influences children’s mental and emotional well being.

Now, there is increasing evidence that a parent’s experiences prior to conceiving children can significantly influence the genetic structure and function of their offspring’s nervous systems.

This may be why some individuals develop phobias about things such as heights or spiders when they have had no experiences of their own to trigger such a fear. Inheriting a parent’s distressing memories might also increase their child's risk of developing anxiety or post traumatic stress disorder.

Inherited Memories

It seems clear from studies done with animals that memories can be passed from one generation to the next through chemical alterations affecting DNA.

For instance, scientists trained a group of mice to fear the delicate smell of cherry blossoms through the delivery of electric shocks. When these mice bred, their babies demonstrated a fear response when exposed to the aroma of cherry blossoms. When the fearful babies grew up and had offspring, that new generation also expressed fear when smelling cherry blossoms—though they had not earlier encountered the smell.

The mice trained to fear smelling cherry blossoms, and their children, showed structural brain alternations in areas that respond to odors. The DNA of these animals also had chemical changes, or epigenetic methylation, on genes associated with smell detection.

Epigenetic changes are environmentally influenced genetic alterations. Though they may not cause structural DNA changes, they affect how our DNA is expressed.

Mice and Men

So, in the case of the original cherry blossom fearful mice, the experience of an electric shock, associated with cherry blossom aroma, was somehow transferred from their brains to their genetic material, and passed on during conception.

It is cautiously assumed that this same process occurs in humans although that has yet to be directly explored in research.

“It is high time public health researchers took human transgenerational responses seriously,” said pediatric geneticist Marcus Pembrey, University College London. “I suspect we will not understand the rise in neuropsychiatric disorders or obesity, diabetes, and metabolic disruptions generally without taking a multigenerational approach.”

Source: Health Freedoms
Photo credit: coniferconifer / flickr creative commons

 
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