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Campbell: Exploring the Biological Inheritance of Childhood Trauma


We know from history that traumatic experiences in childhood can have long-lasting effects, impacting both the physical body and our mental health. Research has shown that these stressful experiences in life can also impact the offspring of individuals whom have endured trauma.

This contradicts some of the basic underpinnings of genetic hereditary. How can experiences in life affect our gametes – the sperm and egg cells – which pass on hereditary information through DNA to our offspring? Scientists are focusing on the role that the epigenome plays here.

The epigenome, which regulates gene activity by mechanisms which, put simply, involve "switching on" and "switching off" of genes, can be influenced by biological molecules.

A new study led by Professor Isabelle Mansuy at the University of Zurich's Brain Research Institute explored how circulating factors in the blood communicate with the embryonic precursors of gametes (germ cells) in both animal models and human participants.1

Mansuy and colleagues focused their efforts on studying the biological impact of trauma. They found that traumatic experiences in early life cause changes in the blood composition – namely metabolites – that are passed on to the next generation.

Technology Networks spoke with Mansuy to learn more about the field of epigenetic inheritance, the specifics of the study and the possible impact these data may have on matters of public health.

Molly Campbell (MC): Your new study contributes to a research field known as epigenetic inheritance. For our readers that may be unfamiliar, can you please tell us more about this field of research, and its applications?

Isabelle Mansuy (IM):
This field of research studies a form of heredity that has hardly been studied before and that involves epigenetic factors. Heredity is classically known as depending on genetics, and our genetic code (or genome), which is transferred from parent to offspring through gametes (reproductive cells: oocyte and sperm cell). This is innate heredity, which is the inheritance of “natural” or intrinsic traits. But there is also acquired heredity, which is the inheritance of traits acquired during life upon exposure to the environment and life experiences. This form of inheritance depends on the epigenome, which are factors around the DNA sequence that regulate its activity. The applications are broad, and include a better understanding of diseases linked to the environment/experiences such as psychiatric disorders, autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, etc whose causes and mechanisms remain poorly known and which have no treatment.

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