There’s nothing particularly alarming about the aroma of acetophenone, a chemical whose sweet smell reminds people of almonds.
But for a set of mice in Atlanta, it became a source of fear. Brian Dias of Emory University repeatedly let them sniff the chemical, then gave them mild electric shocks, until the mice learned that the smell was a sign that something bad was about to happen.
But the real news came a generation later. The offspring of that first group of mice also reacted in fear at the smell of acetophenone, even though they had never experienced an electric shock themselves.
And their own offspring — now two generations removed from the shock experiment — also inherited a fear of the distinctive smell.
Dias has a broad and philosophical view of what human consciousness is. Raised in India, he is a faculty member of the Emory Tibet Science Initiative, teaches neuroscience to Tibetan Buddhist monks in India. He was recently on a panel discussing “Consciousness — Perspectives from Western Neuroscience and Buddhist Philosophy” with the Dalai Lama. (The session is on Youtube.)
It’s perhaps an ideal disposition for someone who is also trying to identify the nuts and bolts of an emerging field in consciousness.
It’s known as epigenetics — literally “beyond genetics” — and it’s raising such mind-bending questions as: Can we inherit fear? Can drug addiction pass down genetic effects to an addict’s children? Can extreme stress or trauma, on the scale of war or famine, re-shape an entire community, down through one or more generations?
In short, how much do our genes remember?
You get a set of genes when you’re conceived; half from your mother, half from your father. That basic code never changes.
But genes are on chromosomes — strands of DNA — and chromosomes undergo physical changes throughout your lifetime.
One such change is called methylation. A small molecule called a methyl group, which is a little cluster of hydrogen and carbon atoms, attaches itself to points along the DNA.
This happens naturally during your life as you age, but under high stress, it can happen more frequently.
(That’s right: Stress can influence your DNA.)
Your roughly 20,000 genes have different jobs, and as you age the body can raise or lower their levels of activity, or even shut them off. The little methyl groups can affect this activity level.
This is where epigenetics comes into play.
Epigenetics applies to many areas of medicine — perhaps to all of them. In medicine, those examining epigenetics have mainly been examining how our genes are affected within one lifetime, because changes in how genes act can affect our health.
But there’s also growing evidence about heredity — that we pass down some changes we acquire during our lifetime to our children, and even to our grandchildren.
That’s where things get really interesting.
TRAUMA AND THE HOLOCAUST
Some epigenetics study has focused particularly on the ordeal of Jews during the Second World War.
In 2013, Israeli psychologist Natan Kellerman, wrote: “The Holocaust left its visible and invisible marks not only on the survivors, but also on their children.”
Survivors themselves often have altered levels of stress hormones, compared to other Jews of the same age.
In 2016, two New York City hospitals established that survivors’ children also had altered stress hormones — though not in the same form as the changes in their parents. The researchers suggested that the impact may make the younger generation less able to handle stress, and more prone to anxiety disorders.
Both the parents and children, meanwhile, showed changes to one specific gene associated with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in patterns that differed from people whose families had escaped the Holocaust.
“Instead of numbers tattooed on their forearms, (children of survivors) may have been marked epigenetically with a chemical coating upon their chromosomes, which would represent a kind of biological memory of what the parents experienced,” Kellerman wrote.
“As a result, some suffer from a general vulnerability to stress while others are more resilient.”
Kellerman titled his article “Epigenetic transmission of Holocaust trauma: Can nightmares be inherited?”
It’s not all the stuff of inherited nightmares, mind you.
In passing on epigenetic effects to the next generation, the body may be trying to help the next generation adapt.
For instance, it has been theorized that changes passed on to the genes of children of famine survivors may help prepare the children to deal with famine in their own time. And it has been observed that while some children of Holocaust survivors appear prone to anxiety and depression, others are somehow made more resilient, as if their genes are preparing them to meet the troubles of their parents’ time head-on.
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