Trauma can scar people so indelibly that their children are affected. History provides examples of generations traumatized by war and starvation, whose children experience altered physiology.
Now researchers at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University have found an instance of animals passing on more specific information about a traumatic experience to their offspring. That information comes not through social communication, but through inheritance.
Researchers have found that when a mouse learns to become afraid of a certain odor, his or her pups will be more sensitive to that odor, even though the pups have never encountered it.
The results were published online Dec. 1, 2013 in Nature Neuroscience.
"Knowing how the experiences of parents influence their descendants helps us to understand psychiatric disorders that may have a trans-generational basis, and possibly to design therapeutic strategies," says senior author Kerry Ressler, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory School of Medicine.
Ressler is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute-supported investigator at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University. The first author of the paper is postdoctoral fellow Brian Dias, PhD.
Dias and Ressler trained mice to become afraid of an odor, by pairing exposure to the odor with a mild electric shock. They then measured how much the animal startled in response to a loud noise at baseline, and in conjunction with presentation of the odor.
Surprisingly, they found that the nave adult offspring of the sensitized mice also startled more in response to the particular odor that one parent had learned to fear. In addition, they were more able to detect small amounts of that particular odor. Smell-sensitized offspring were not more anxious in general; Dias found that they were not more afraid to explore the exposed areas of a maze.
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Emory Health Sciences