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Fear etched in epigenetics: Phobias, PTSD can be inherited

This blog post by Pam Baker originally appeared on the Alberta Epigenetics Network website on 31 October, 2018

Fear, it turns out, can be permanently etched in our epigenetics. When it is, it continues to affect the frightened long after the cause of the fright itself has gone. But horror doesn’t necessarily end with its victim’s mortal passing. Fear can be passed on to future generations, and the implications are disturbing to mental health professionals.

Fortunately, most fears subside over time, becoming little more than a faded memory. A few that do continue to vividly hang on have a healthy purpose. For example, a fear of bees or snakes after a sting or a bite is a learned response that helps the victim avoid future attacks. Indeed, genetically passing on a fear can be a normal part of evolutionary design, protecting future generations from real and recurring threats. This short, animated video explains how that works:

Fears that grow to become stronger phobias can often be successfully treated with a variety of therapies including exposure therapy or systematic desensitization. However, if offspring are conceived prior to successful treatments, these fears too can carry over to other generations.

But mental health professionals hold the most concern for serious phobias and disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), that could also be inherited.

According to the PTSD Association of Canada, “PTSD can develop after a person has experienced or witnessed a traumatic or terrifying event. PTSD is a lasting consequence of traumatic ordeals that cause intense fear, helplessness or horror, such as a sexual or physical assault, the unexpected death of a loved one, an accident, war, or natural disaster and more. Families of victims can also develop PTSD, as can military personnel, emergency personnel and rescue workers, first responders, journalists.....to name a few.”

The non-profit says that the good news is that PTSD is treatable, but the bad news is that the disorder is frequently misdiagnosed. That information is alarming on several fronts, not the least of which is that, despite the frequency of misdiagnosis, Canada has the highest prevalence of PTSD of the 24 countries included in a 2016 study – “9.2 percent of Canadians will suffer from PTSD in their lifetimes,” the authors said.

But this information also sparks a rethink on future treatment regimens within the mental health community. One idea is to think of successful treatment regimens in terms of providing therapies for entire families, but especially the offspring, of individuals suffering from PTSD. Another idea is to redouble efforts in identifying PTSD early, preferably before offspring are conceived – think of it as sort of a generational preventative measure.

Yet another idea is to look to epigenetics for ways to prevent PTSD from developing in the individual at all, regardless of the intensity of the traumatic experience. Since not everyone exposed to an intensely fearful or traumatic experience develops PTSD, researchers are looking to see if epigenetics may hold the reason for the different responses.

Who knows? Maybe there will be a PTSD epigenetic vaccine one day.

Fear etched in epigenetics: Phobias, PTSD can be inherited

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