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Lesson Plans

Can trauma be passed to next generation through DNA?

August 31, 2015

Full Lesson


New research suggests that experiencing intense psychological trauma may have a genetic impact on a person’s future children.

A study examining the DNA of Holocaust survivors and their children found similar variations from the norm in both generations for the gene associated with depression and anxiety disorders. The findings imply that children of individuals who experience profound stress in life may be more likely to develop stress or anxiety disorders themselves.

The pattern — known as an epigenetic change because it affects the chemical marker for the gene rather than the gene itself — suggests that profound stress in the older generation translated into an adaptation that passed on to the next, said Dr. Rachel Yehuda, director of Mount Sinai’s Traumatic Stress Studies Division and leader of the study.

Scientists have long known that parents pass genetic traits down to their children, but Yehuda’s research suggests that life experiences can also produce chemical effects in DNA. Similar research has been done into the effects of famine on later generations, as well as stress levels in the children of women who survived the September 11th attacks.

Although the study involved just 32 Holocaust survivors and their offspring, Yehuda said the findings provide proof of concept that could lead to more research into exactly how the changes occur.

The findings may provide an explanation for why people like Karen Sonneberg struggle with anxiety and stress disorders despite having never experienced trauma themselves.  Sonneberg’s Jewish parents both suffered under Nazi oppression in Germany at a young age. She said many of her friends with similar backgrounds experienced similar struggles with anxiety.

“There were definitely challenges that quote-unquote ‘American’ kids didn’t seem to have experienced,” Sonneberg said.

Warm up questions

  1. What was the Holocaust?
  2. Were future generations affected by what happened?
  3. How does experiencing trauma affect a person’s life?

Critical thinking questions

  1. Why might it be helpful to know how children will be affected by the trauma their parents experienced?
  2. By identifying factors that can contribute to PTSD and anxiety disorders, how might doctors better treat people who suffer from these disorders?
  3. What kinds of events going on in the world right now could be producing similar effects in future generations?