It’s In The Genes - Epigenetics, Memory, and Mystery

A mystic or spiritual understanding of life might say that the past is always present, that somehow what has been before is present in the unseen around us.  Many understand this to be the connection we have with our dead, that our family members who aren’t here in this physical place aren’t really gone.  Many cultures take care of their dead the same way they take care of the living, continuing relationships through prayer and rituals, representing their very concrete understanding of this.  What evidence do we have that the events and circumstances of the past are really still here in some way?  Epigenetic studies (inheritable changes in gene expression that are not reflected in a change in DNA sequence) are beginning to provide scientific clues to this mysterious aspect of being alive.  

We have the hard evidence of DNA being passed down through eggs and sperm as we been discussing in other posts.  This code is the potential for our lives.  But how are the experiences of our ancestors and our parents affecting how our genetic code is utilized, which we can consider epigenetic factors?   We have some pretty amazing examples of how events transform the potential in our DNA.  During WW11 there were wide spread famines; one example was in the Netherlands.  For a period of many months people were severely undernourished and many women were pregnant or conceived during this period.  One remarkable finding was that children who were born during this time or were in utero during this time had much higher risk of obesity in adulthood.  The way their genes were being used changed drastically because they experienced malnutrition in the womb.  The epigenetic landscape of these babies altered the genetic expression and therefore how their metabolism functioned; the metabolism was holding the memory of famine. 

What about other memories? In Epigenetic Transmission of Holocaust Trauma: Can Nightmares Be Inherited? (2013) Natan P.F. Kellermann writes:  “Some children of Holocaust survivors have terrible night- mares in which they are chased, persecuted, tortured or annihilated, as if they were re-living the Second World War over and over again. At these times, they suffer from debilitating anxiety and depression which reduce their ability to cope with stress and adversely impact their occupational and social function. It seems that these individuals, who are now adults, somehow have absorbed the repressed and insufficiently worked-through Holocaust trauma of their parents, as if they have actually inherited the unconscious minds of their parents.”  This is a complex topic as children can be affected by family dynamics, sociocultural factors, genetics, environmental factors and so on.  But there is evidence that children of trauma survivors have increased risk of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) despite never having been traumatized themselves in a way that would typically cause PTSD.  PTSD usually occurs when a person’s life or safety is threatened beyond their control or they are in an overwhelmingly stressful situation.  The new research in epigenetics is showing that children are inheriting behaviour tendencies in a much more complex manner that can be explained by the original paradigm of genetic inheritance.  Examples include the tendency to nightmares in Holocaust survivors or a very strong stress response that children of parents who do not suffer from PTSD do not have to similar situations.  In a mice model experiment published in 2014 Nature Neuroscience, mice were conditioned to fear a specific chemical smell by being frightened through electric shock while exposed to the chemical (they were not pregnant).  The subsequent 2 generations of these mice exhibited physical changes in their brains related to this very specific smell, and they had an enhanced sensory response to this chemical.  The authors conclude: “Our findings provide a framework for addressing how environmental information may be inherited transgenerationally at behavioral, neuroanatomical and epigenetic levels.”  So the past is certainly with us, at least in the examples described here.  Do you find these things mysterious as well as engaging to your scientist mind?  Do you think we will understand the mysteries of how our ancestors and major events of the past affect us through science?  Do you ever have reactions to situations that you find hard to explain?  I certainly find it interesting food for my naturopathic and holistic mind since we are always searching for a better understanding of health and disease.  Perhaps someday epigenetics will illuminate these mysteries, or maybe deepen them further.  For more information check out Bruce Lipton or Deepak Chopra’s new book ‘Super Genes’.