Many of us learned in high school biology class that genetic traits are passed down to us from our parents. We were taught that we have brown, blue, or green eyes because a parent did, we’re thin or fat because a parent was, and so on. Recent research expands this idea in a way that would have seemed inconceivable a few decades ago. We know the traits we pass down to our children can not only change based on our life experience. But we also know we can continue to alter our children’s pattern of genetic activity after they’re born. This area of genetics research is called epigenetics. It’s the study of alterations in gene function caused by changes in gene expression rather than in the genetic code.
This could all seem a bit disheartening to those of us dealing with anxiety, depression, anger issues, or other mental health concerns. If we’re depressed because of our parents’ experiences or how they treated us when we were babies, what hope is there for us? But if we couple epigenetics with research into cognitive behavioral therapy and neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to form new neurons and glial cells and forge new connections), we have reason to be hopeful.
In 2010, scientists at the University of Copenhagen fed male rats a diet high in fat and then watched as their offspring gained more weight than the babies of rats fed a regular diet. If traditional theories about genetics had been true, the diet of a rat’s parent shouldn’t have affected the weight of their offspring. The old thinking about genetics—that either you’re born with a gene that predisposes you to obesity or you’re not, and nothing you do in your life changes what gene you pass onto your children—is, according to studies like the Copenhagen one, incorrect.
To discover how gene alteration in rats occurs, scientists studied their sperm. “The genes in sperm cells are regulated by swarms of molecules, so-called epigenetic factors. These molecules can respond to environmental influences by silencing some genes and activating others as needed” (Zimmer, 2015). The research suggests the male rats were handing down epigenetic factors to their offspring.
A 2011 study at the University of Wisconsin showed that “when parents are under emotional, financial, or other forms of stress, it can alter their children’s patterns of genetic activity at least through adolescence and perhaps longer. And since some of the altered genes shape brain development, the effects of parental stress might permanently wire themselves into children’s brains” (Begley, 2011).
It was an earlier 2004 study that showed us how parents can alter a baby’s genes by their behavior toward them. Another rat study, this time at McGill University, revealed that when a mother rat licks and grooms her offspring, “it activates a gene that makes a receptor for stress hormones in the baby rats’ brains, which causes more receptors to be produced, which causes fewer stress hormones.” Thus, the offspring are more “well-adjusted, curious, and mellow” as adults (Begley, 2011).
So, the question becomes: If our parent’ lives before we’re born and their treatment of us when we’re children can have a huge effect on our mental and physical health as adults, what can we do about it if we, as adults, are suffering the consequences? Whether we’re dealing with childhood trauma, anxiety, or another mental health issue, believing so much of our personality is baked-in can be, well, depressing.
Learning more about epigenetics and neuroplasticity gives us a reason to strive to be healthier and happier people.
This brings us to another fascinating area of research: neuroplasticity and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). According to a study published in Translational Psychiatry in 2016, “patients with anxiety disorders exhibit excessive neural reactivity in the amygdala” and there is “compelling evidence that CBT for a common anxiety disorder simultaneously changes the physical structure and neurofunctional response of the amygdala” (Månsson, 2016).
This is good news for those of us who just got discouraged reading about epigenetics. CBT is the most widely used evidence-based psychological treatment. It focuses on patterns in cognition, coping strategies, and emotional regulation. CBT subjects learn extensively about the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and they practice identifying maladaptive thoughts such as catastrophizing—jumping to worst-case scenarios.
In CBT, one learns to separate faulty thoughts and beliefs from one’s emotional responses and, consequently, one’s unhealthy behaviors. For example, when the thought “everything will turn out horribly” leads to the feeling “I might as well give up now,” you are likely to give up and thus prove to yourself that you were right all along. After weeks or months of successful CBT treatment, a person should learn to recognize when they catastrophize and change the thought from “everything will turn out horribly” to “I can’t predict the future; things may work out and surprise me,” changing the emotional response and thus the behavior.
Learning more about epigenetics and neuroplasticity gives us a reason to strive to be healthier and happier people. One, because they tell us that we can break negative thought patterns that keep us trapped in unhealthy behaviors. And two, because our actions impact our children—both before we decide to have them and after we bring them into the world.
If you struggle with negative thoughts and related behaviors, contact a therapist.
- Begley, S. (2011, September 12). Parents’ depression and stress leaves lasting mark on children’s DNA. Daily Beast. Retrieved from https://www.thedailybeast.com/parents-depression-and-stress-leaves-lasting-mark-on-childrens-dna
- Essex, M. J., Boyce, W. T., Hertzman, C., Lam, L. L., Armstrong, J. M., Neumann, S. M. A., & Kobor, M. S. (2011, September 2). Epigenetic vestiges of early developmental adversity: Childhood stress exposure and DNA methylation in adolescence. Child Development. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01641.x
- Kays, J. L., Hurley, R. A., & Taber, K. H. (2012, April 1). The dynamic brain: Neuroplasticity and mental health. Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 24(2). Retrieved from https://neuro.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.neuropsych.12050109
- Månsson, K. N. T., Salami, A., Frick, A., Carlbring, P., Andersson, G., Furmark, T., & Boraxbekk, C.-J. (2016). Neuroplasticity in response to cognitive behavior therapy for social anxiety disorder. Translational Psychiatry, 6(2). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4872422
- Weaver, I. C., Cervoni, N., Champagne, F. A., D’Alessio, A. C., Sharma, S., Seckl, J. R., … & Meaney, M. J. (2004). Epigenetic programming by maternal behavior. Nature Neuroscience, 7(8). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15220929
- Weinhold, B. (2006). Epigenetics: The science of change. Environmental Health Perspectives, 114(3). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1392256
- Zimmer, C. (2015, December 3). Fathers may pass down more than just genes, study suggests. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/08/science/parents-may-pass-down-more-than-just-genes-study-suggests.html
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