Time magazine published an interesting article last week on intergenerational trauma: “Genetic Scars of the Holocaust: Children Suffer Too” by Jeffrey Kluger.
Kluger discusses a recent study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry that explores the effects of parental trauma on the emotional and behavioural development of children. Researchers at the University of Zurich explored these relationships in mice. Mice that had experienced early life trauma demonstrated symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder such as isolation and jumpiness. The offspring of these mice had similar anxious behaviors, even though they were raised in a non-traumatic environment. The researchers found differences in brain function and gene expression in this second-generation of mice.
The study suggests that the genes of children can be affected by the trauma that their parents experienced. Their work comes from the field of epigenetics which explores how genes change as a result of environmental factors in ways that can be passed onto the next generation.
The study is far from showing a causal relationship and mice are a far cry from human beings. But it does suggest a biological mechanism for understanding how trauma from our ancestors can be passed onto later generations.