Friday Pearl

Science: Old Wounds & Behavioral Epigenetics

Friday, August 25, 2017

Epigenetic science now suggests that our ancestors' lousy childhoods, dietary deficiencies, and excellent adventures may have left a mark on our genes, which could help explain cultural and individual autosomal responses to stimuli.

I find this new area of behavioral neurobiology science beyond compelling. Could my Tennessee heritage dating back to the early 1840s and my Southern grandmother's and great-grandmother's life experiences, including post-Civil War and Jim Crow years, play an epigenetic role in my lifelong tearful response to the song "Dixie" (written in 1859 and still the song that most represents the south in my mind).

The body of ever-growing epigenome scientific literature suggests that experience-driven synaptic plasticity, and long-term memory formation could ​be linked to a cellular ​epigenetic DNA autosomal response to pain and pleasure. 

Darwin and Freud walk into a bar.

Two mice sit on two bar stools, lapping gin from two thimbles.

One mouse looks at the other and says, “Hey, geniuses, tell me how my son got into this sorry state.”

“Bad inheritance,” says Darwin.

“Bad mothering,” says Freud.

According to a great article in Nature magazine, “For over a hundred years, those two views—nature or nurture, biology or psychology—offered opposing explanations for how behaviors develop and persist, not only within a single individual, but across generations.

"And then, in 1992, two young PhD scientists following in Freud’s and Darwin’s footsteps actually did walk into a bar. And by the time they walked out—supposedly after a few beers, they had begun to forge a revolutionary new synthesis of how life experiences could directly affect our genes—and not only our own life experiences, but those inherited from our mothers, grandmothers and beyond.

"The two engaged in animated conversation about a hot new line of research in genetics. Since the 1970s, researchers had known that the tightly wound spools of DNA inside each cell’s nucleus require something extra to tell them exactly which genes to transcribe, whether for a heart cell, a liver cell or a brain cell.

"One such extra element is the methyl group (think B vitamins), a common structural component of organic molecules. The methyl group works like a placeholder in a cookbook, attaching to the DNA within each cell to select only those recipes—er, genes— necessary for that particular cell’s proteins. Because methyl groups are attached to the genes, residing beside but separate from the double-helix DNA code, the field was dubbed epigenetics, from the prefix epi (Greek for over, outer, above)."

Originally these epigenetic changes were believed to occur only during fetal development. But pioneering studies showed that intense emotional and physical wound molecular matter can be added to DNA in childhood and adulthood, setting off a cascade of embedded cellular memories expressed primarily through epigenetic reproductive processes.

Ellen Troyer with Spencer Thornton, MD, David Amess and the Biosyntrx staff


The good news: "Like grandmother’s vintage dress, we can wear it as is or have it altered. The genome has long been known as the blueprint of life, but the epigenome is life’s Etch A Sketch. If we shake it hard enough, it can help heal our epigenetic carryover emotional wounds." This seems a small price to pay to move our country forward, in our opinion.


Crews D, Gillette R, et al. Nature, nurture and epigenetics. Mol Cell Endocrinol 2014 Dec. [Full Study]

Pishva E, Drukker M, Viechtbauer W, et al. Epigenetic Genes and Emotional Reactivity to Daily Life Events: A Multi-step Gene-Environment Interaction Study. PLOS June 26, 2014 [Full Study]

Oberlander TF, Weinberg J, Papsdorf M, Grunau R, Misri S, et al. (2008) Prenatal exposure to maternal depression, neonatal methylation of human glucocorticoid receptor gene (NR3C1) and infant cortisol stress responses. Epigenetics: official journal of the DNA Methylation Society 3: 97–106. [abstract]

Kuan PF, Waszchuk MA et al. An epigenome-wide DNA methylation study of PTSD and depression in World Trade Center responders. Trasl Psychiatry. 2017 June 27;7(6). [abstract]

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