Grandma’s Experiences May Leave An Imprint on Your Genes

Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes

Darwin and Freud walk into a bar. Two alcoholic mice — a mother and her son — sit on two bar stools, lapping gin from two thimbles.

The mother mouse looks up and says, “Hey, geniuses, tell me how my son got into this sorry state.”

“Bad inheritance,” says Darwin.

“Bad mothering,” says Freud.

For more than a century, the age-old debate between nature and nurture, biology and psychology, entertained us with its back-and-forth. 

But then, in 1992, two intrepid young scientists decided to follow in the footsteps of Freud and Darwin and walked into a bar. 

As fate would have it, after a few rounds of cerveza and banter, they stumbled upon a groundbreaking idea that would forever change our understanding of behaviour development.

This fortuitous meeting took place in Madrid, at the prestigious Cajal Institute, where the cream of the neurobiology crop had gathered for an international conference. 

Moshe Szyf, a geneticist from McGill University in Montreal, found himself out of his usual molecular biology territory, having been persuaded by a colleague to attend. 

Similarly, Michael Meaney, a neurobiologist also from McGill, was convinced by the same colleague to join, with hopes that their collaboration might shed new light on the impact of maternal neglect in animal models.

Little did they know that their chance encounter over beers would lead to a groundbreaking synthesis of how life experiences could influence not only our own genes but our ancestors’ lousy childhoods or excellent adventures might influence our personality, bequeathing anxiety or resilience by altering the epigenetic expressions of genes in our brain.

So, whether your great-great-grandma had a rough upbringing or sailed through life on a sea of adventure might just determine whether you’re prone to anxiety or blessed with resilience, all by tinkering with the epigenetic expressions in your brain. 

As Szyf and Meaney sat pondering at the Madrid bar, they entertained a hypothesis as outlandish as it was profound: Could experiences like neglect, substance abuse, or extreme stress trigger epigenetic changes in the DNA nestled within the neurons of our brains? 

Little did they know, this whimsical query would spark the birth of a burgeoning field known as behavioural epigenetics, now brimming with studies and promising new avenues for healing the mind.

According to the fascinating insights of behavioural epigenetics, the traumas endured by our ancestors leave behind molecular imprints on our DNA. Whether it’s the Chinese whose grandparents survived the Cultural Revolution, the young immigrants from Africa whose parents endured massacres or the Jews whose great-grandparents fled Russian persecution, these experiences leave more than just memories—they leave a molecular residue clinging to our genetic framework.

Just like silt settling on the gears of a finely tuned machine after a tumultuous wave, our experiences and those of our forebears linger within us, shaping our psychological and behavioural inclinations. While our DNA remains unchanged, we may find ourselves inheriting not only physical traits but also predispositions towards depression, resilience, or other behaviours influenced by our familial past.

But fear not! For those of us fortunate enough to come from nurturing lineages, we may reap the benefits of their love and support passed down through generations. And for those burdened by the legacies of misery or neglect, there’s hope in emerging drug therapies that could potentially reset these epigenetic imprints. Much like altering an old dress passed down from grandma, we could reshape the patterns of our inherited tendencies.

While the genome serves as life’s blueprint, the epigenome behaves more like life’s Etch A Sketch: with a vigorous shake, we can potentially erase the burdens of the past and start anew. 

So, whether you’ve inherited grandma’s knobby knees or her resilience in the face of adversity, remember, the family curse may not be as permanent as it seems. So yes you can successfully eliminate your fear of spiders

The wonders of science, discovered in the most unexpected places.

Dr. Elmar Jung
Dr. Elmar Jung
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