A recent study on mice has shown that certain fears can be passed down through multiple generations. The researchers propose that this same phenomenon could potentially impact anxiety and addiction in humans. However, some experts are unsure about the findings as a biological mechanism that explains this occurrence has not been identified yet.
DNA is the only way to transmit biological data across generations
Conventionally, DNA is the only way to transmit biological information across generations. Random mutations in DNA can be beneficial, allowing organisms to adapt to changing conditions, but this process usually takes many generations to occur.
It’s fascinating to learn that environmental factors can impact biology through “epigenetic” modifications. These changes can affect gene expression, but not the sequence itself.
Unfortunately, children who were conceived during harsh wartime famine in the Netherlands during the 1940s are at a higher risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions due to these epigenetic alterations. It’s scary to think about the potential long-term effects of such conditions.
Although epigenetic modifications are important for processes like development and inactivating one copy of the X-chromosome in females, their role in inherited behavior is still a topic of debate.
Issues that can be transmitted via DNA
Kerry Ressler, a neurobiologist and psychiatrist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and co-author of the latest study, became interested in epigenetic inheritance after working with low-income individuals in inner cities.
It’s heartbreaking to see cycles of drug addiction, neuropsychiatric illness, and other problems appear to recur in both parents and their children.
It’s crucial that we continue to study these issues and work towards finding solutions. “There are a lot of anecdotes to suggest that there’s intergenerational transfer of risk, and that it’s hard to break that cycle,” he says.
Researching the biological causes of these effects in humans would be challenging.
Therefore, Ressler and his colleague Brian Dias chose to investigate epigenetic inheritance in mice that were trained to fear the smell of acetophenone, a chemical with a fragrance similar to that of cherries and almonds.
They exposed the mice to the scent in a small chamber while administering small electric shocks to male mice.
Over time, the mice learned to link the scent with pain, causing them to shudder in the presence of acetophenone even when not receiving a shock.
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