How trauma’s effects can pass from generation to generation

Isabelle Mansuy’s neuroepigenetics lab researches the impact of life experiences and environmental factors on mental health, exploring if these impacts can be passed on to descendants.

Epigenetic inheritance, she says, is not confined to diets and exposure of factors such as like endocrine disruptors or environmental pollutants. All of these can modify our body and have effects in our offspring. But Mansuy, who is based at the University of Zurich and Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, also asks if trauma modifies not only our brains, but also our reproductive systems.

There is still a lot of work needed, she adds, but the possibility that depression or borderline personality disorder might be something inherited from parents would be important for patients and clinicians to understand.

Mansuy’s lab seeks to expose animals prenatally or after birth to conditions which mimic human stress. Her collaborators also provide access to blood and saliva samples from people exposed to childhood trauma, and medical students who are undergoing work placements in emergency rooms.

Excerpts from the transcript of the conversation between host Jean Mary Zarate and Neuroepigenetics researcher Isabell Mansuy – listen to the full episode at Nature.com

ISABELL MANSUY

I’m Isabelle Mansuy. And I’m professor in neuroepigenetics at the University of Zurich, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland.

Neuroepigenetics is a new discipline in biology and neuroscience, which combines neuroscience and epigenetics.

So it’s a discipline which studies the intimate mechanisms which regulate brain function, so the functions of the nervous system.

So classically, we know that the genome, and genes that it contains, or it carries, regulate complex functions. Now, with epigenetics, we are looking at factors and mechanics which are beyond the genetic sequence itself, beyond the DNA sequence, beyond the genome, which regulate the function of the genome.

So neuroepigenetics, it’s really looking at the heart of brain cells or nervous, cells of the nervous system, looking in the nucleus at the level of the genome, to understand how the genome is regulated, and what are the consequences for behaviour and for brain functions.

Not only it’s how the brain develops, how the brain functions, how the brain can drive our thoughts, how the brain can drive our movements, how all of this is regulated, and how diseases can affect the nervous system, mental health and physical health because you have, if you have a neurodegenerative disease, your body is going to be affected, and your internal organs.

So it’s really the general science of understanding how brain cells, or cells of the nervous system, function.

My work is in a discipline which is even different, or which complements neuroepigenetics, which is epigenetic inheritance.

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