Will Anxious Parents Have Anxious Kids?

Baby mice suckling off their mother. (Photo by Al Fenn//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Baby mice suckling off their mother. (Photo by Al Fenn//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

The sins of the father. The traumas and memories, too.

Researchers have found evidence that we (well, mice) really can pass life experience down through the generations. A study this week in the journal Nature Neuroscience is one more data point in the field of “transgenerational epigenetic inheritance” -- marrying the cool detachment of science with the messy emotion of life, exploring how we are the product of our individual experience, and all of humankind’s.

Specifically, a team at the Emory University School of Medicine subjected mice to the scent of acetophenone a relatively pleasant smell, somewhat like almonds or cherries. While sniffing the chemical the mice were subjected to small but painful shocks, and soon just a whiff of the acetophenone, even without an accompanying shock, made them shudder with fear.

Then sperm from those fearful mice was used to create offspring who, it turned out, were also averse to the smell from birth, as were those in the next generation -- the children and grandchildren of the initial test subjects. In other words, a gene for behavior was apparently changed by the environment and those changes were passed along.

Science has long suspected that what happens to a parent or grandparent can have physical repercussions on children and grandchildren; it has been shown, for instance, that children who were conceived in Holland during the famine brought on by WWII are more likely to have developed heart disease and diabetes as adults. But this study raises the possibility that psychological and emotional traits can be transmitted as well.

Through a scientific lens, findings like these will go a long way toward explaining and treating disorders that run in families. As Professor Marcus Pembrey, from University College London, told the BBC: "It is high time public health researchers took human transgenerational responses seriously. I suspect we will not understand the rise in neuropsychiatric disorders or obesity, diabetes and metabolic disruptions generally without taking a multigenerational approach."

And looked at more poetically, it is evidence that we are shaped by our pasts and linked to our ancestors. This is a humbling reminder (though we pride ourselves on our individuality and free will, we’re basically a collection of neurons, chromosomes and electrical pulses). It could also induce some parental guilt in those who are so inclined. (It’s because of me that my child is anxious...)

But mostly it is confirmation of what we already somehow knew: that we carry our histories within and pass our fears and our dreams along.

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