The identification of the double-helix model of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick in the 1950’s laid the groundwork for an amazing evolution in the understanding of genetics. The Human Genome Project concluded in 2003 with the sequencing of all 3.2 billion base pairs in the human genome (and completed the process two years before their set deadline). This Human Genome Project ushered in a new era in medicine and advanced many new technologies related to gene sequencing.
The information related to these two seminal discoveries is only accelerating. The field of proteomics (the large-scale study of the structure and function of proteins) and the field of epigenetics (the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself) are combining to provide fascinating insights into the ways that our bodies function.
An offshoot of this information is beginning to impact our understanding of many mental health issues. Researchers in the field of epigenetics are now suggesting that our cells may transmit the impact of traumas experienced by relatives and ancestors down through the generations. In other words, if your grandparent experienced a significant trauma, that trauma, due to epigenetic changes in gene expression, could influence the instructions that cells receive to turn certain genes on and off. This could result in the development of disease, either physical or mental.
For example, research by Dr. Rachel Yehuda showed an epigenetic tag that led her to conclude that the propensity for PTSD could be biologically inherited (see citation – Yehuda, R; Bierer, LM Prog Brain Res. 2008;167:121-35.
Why is this important? Doesn’t the idea that we can biologically inherit a propensity toward a trauma response make mental health even more difficult to manage?
Therapists are finding that this is not the case. Investigating one’s own heritage is becoming more and more available due to websites like www.Ancestry.com. DNA testing that connects an individual to literally thousands of other distant relatives is enlarging the understanding that many have of the breadth and depth of our connections to others, living and dead. While therapists have always had a certain understanding of the effects that growing up in adverse circumstances have on a person’s life, the information that a parent’s or grandparent’s circumstances also have a biological impact that CAN BE HEALED by providing enriched environments in the present is incredibly hopeful. After all, if epigenetics tells us that environment altered biology in the past, doesn’t that also mean that present biology can be altered by present experience, both for ourselves and for future generations?
This information gives me hope for individuals who have been impacted by the traumas of our present day – whether it is living through 9/11 or living in a war zone or being trapped at the southern border in horrible conditions. These experiences can be overcome if the right environments are made available. My hope is that those conditions will be identified and provided for all who need them. It is within our power to shape both the present and the future – let’s do it.
About Susan Hammonds-White, EdD, LPC/MHSP
Communications and relationship specialist, counselor, Imago Relationship Therapist, businesswoman, mother, proud native Nashvillian – in private practice for 30+ years. I have the privilege of helping to mend broken hearts. Contact me at http://www.susanhammondswhite.com.
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