Part 1 in a Series on Epigenetics and Behavioural Epigenetics
Is it possible that we can “genetically” inherit behaviors from our parents or grandparents? What I am referring to here doesn’t include “learned behaviors” that are passed down socially from observing or being exposed to your parents’ behavior. I mean to say that at a cellular level, our parents can pass on to us the potential for certain tendencies, behaviours, and even the effects of trauma. Recent scientific research conducted at the University of Zurich, Switzerland indicates that the negative effects of trauma on a particular generation can be passed down to offspring (referred to as transgenerational trauma) through the process of epigenetics. Although the exact biological mechanism whereby this process occurs is not yet clear, what we do know is that it does occur.
What Exactly is Epigenetics?
In simplified terms, epigenetics is the study of biological mechanisms that can switch genes on and off. For example, certain circumstances in life can cause genes to be silenced or expressed over time. In other words, genes can be turned off (becoming dormant) or turned on (becoming active). The study of Epigenetics began in the early 1950s with the separation of the fields of study of developmental biology and genetics. The first stage of significant epigenetics research suggested that DNA methylation could have strong effects on gene expression, and that changes in DNA methylation might therefore explain the switching on and off of genes during development. In a nutshell, methylation alters how genes function.
Since that time the meaning of epigenetics has changed drastically from “molecular mechanisms underlying regulation of gene expression” to “a cell-specific programming that can be transferred to daughter cells.” Neurobiologist and Clinical Psychologist Michael Meaney performed a set of experiments demonstrating that the offspring of mothers who received low levels of maternal care and grooming were predisposed to anxiety compared to those whose mothers received high levels of care. In Meaney’s experiments, it was determined that the anxious or depressed phenotype rooted in the trauma of the mother’s lives was passed on to their children. This doesn’t mean that the actual expression of anxiety or depression was passed on to the children but rather, the “potential” to exhibit anxiety or depression. This would occur if an experience that interacted with the genes presented itself at some point in the children’s lifetimes. Specifically, in order for an epigenetic trait to be transferred from mother to child it needs an experience (in research this is generally referred to as “environment”).
For the purpose of this article, what we need to keep in mind is that there is research supporting the transference and heritability for the “potential” to experience trauma and negative behaviors. People will respond to certain experiences as an individual, depending on the specific sensitivity of that person, which is determined through biological development in the womb and the actual birth process.
Hopefully by this point you have a basic understanding of epigenetics. Behavioral epigenetics is the field of study examining the role of expression of genes in shaping our human behavior, cognition, personality, and mental health. The developing field of behavioral epigenetics continues to strive to answer the question, “Can certain experiences such as drug abuse or other severe stresses set off epigenetic changes to the DNA inside the neurons of a person’s brain?” In the Discover magazine article “Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Brain,” Dan Hurley provides examples of instances where traumatic experiences in our recent ancestors’ past could have left molecular scars adhering to our DNA including: generations of Jews who had great-grandparents chased from their homes in Russia; young African immigrants whose parents survived horrific massacres; and more commonly today, adults (of every ethnicity) who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents.
You Have Genetically Inherited Some of Your Parents Negative Behaviors. NOW WHAT?
If you understand that the potential for negative effects of trauma can be inherited from your parents, who in turn may have inherited these effects from their parents, the next thing you may want to ask is, “How can I make changes to these potential inherited behaviours? Is epigenetics reversible?”
Predicted genome and epigenetic treatments for the future solely emphasize research and development into epigenetic medications. Not only is this treatment not yet available, like all pharmaceuticals, it is highly likely (i.e. almost guaranteed) that there will be side effects to these ‘precise pharmaceuticals.’ Would you be afraid that a designer drug developed to address behavioral epigenetics could possibly wipe away the positive inherited behaviors that you expressed as well? Through the Blueprint for Changes program we have found a way to stimulate and reprogram epigenetics without the side effects that pharmacological treatments may supply via the modification of the activity of multiple genes.
How Blueprint for Changes Differs from Many Therapies
This is how most therapies that address negative behaviors and emotional or mental health issues work: if we are feeling sad or depressed the goal is to make us happy. If we are feeling anxious, the goal is to calm us down. However, being happy is not the problem; the problem is being sad. Being calm is not the problem; the problem is being anxious. In traditional therapy or counseling the root problem does not get addressed because of no fault of their own, therapists do not know how to access the root of the problem. In therapy, if a patient or client is asked how sad they are, the individual falls into the chemical stimulation of that emotion and it can take hours or days to get them far removed from this stimulation. By addressing problems or challenges at a conscious level we can only be pulled in one direction – into the emotion. What works more effectively long-term is to access what underlies the genetic stimulation created by epigenetics. Blueprint for Changes is precision engineering – stimulating the underlying factor rather than the emotional realm that is typically experienced.
At Blueprint for Changes our focus is on helping people make positive changes to the behavior(s) they choose to identify and improving overall mental and emotional health. Seventeen years of research conducted by Dr. Kim Potter contributed to the development of Blueprint for Changes. This research has its’ roots in epigenetics; first with animals and then with applications to humans.
The human genome (our complete set of genetic information) has long been referred to as the “blueprint of life.” It is our goal to keep the blueprint intact yet alter only the potential negative inherited behaviours or effects of trauma. It would be impossible for us to cover how the Blueprint for Changes program addresses epigenetics and behavioral epigenetics in one blog post – so check back for more on this topic!