Experts are just recently beginning to understand how our DNA responds to environmental factors, turning on and off certain genetic pathways as an adaptive process called epigenetics. While epigenetics does not involve an actual change in our DNA, it does influence which elements of our genetic material are expressed. Researchers have begun to explore if these elements are passed down to our descendants, specifically in the context of inherited trauma.
Understanding Inherited Trauma
An understanding of whether epigenetics affects how or which genetic material our children and grandchildren inherit could have considerable implications on society. Up until now, the cycle of child abuse, for example, has been attributed to learned behaviors and environmental factors; approximately a third of individuals who experience abuse or neglect as children end up perpetuating this trauma upon their own children. If the cycle of abuse could be addressed from a genetic standpoint, experts could develop objective tools to curb the incidence of intergenerational trauma.
A study of inherited trauma from 2015 brought the field significant media coverage. The study, published in the Biological Psychiatry Journal, concluded that female descendants of Holocaust victims — individuals who experienced severe psychophysiological trauma — exhibited the same methylation of DNA that their mothers had exhibited.
Fascinating results, but the findings were summarily dismissed by the scientific community due major flaws in the study’s design. For one thing, as The Guardian points out, women are born with their lifetime supply of eggs, meaning that the physical DNA of any future grandchildren is already in existence and that studying intergenerational inheritance in women requires four generations of separation. The small study also could not control for environmental factors.
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