Words By Aspasia Celia Tsampas and Ania Wojas
Cover Art by Devon Smillie
The following article appeared in the November 2019 edition of The Campus.
Most people are aware of what trauma does to one’s general health. Extreme stress caused by an event can alter not only someone’s mental health, but physical health as well. However, is it possible that the trauma of our ancestors and past generations can be passed down to future generations?
In all the world’s tragedies throughout history, many entire groups of people have undergone extreme stress and trauma. A recent study conducted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) suggests that the experiences of our parents, grandparents, and even great grandparents, may be passed down through our DNA– allowing future generations to inherit that trauma. The study particularly looked at survivors of the Civil War, especially prisoners of war (POW) and their offspring. They found that the sons of army soldiers who endured grueling conditions as POWs were more likely to die young than the sons of soldiers who were not imprisoned. This pattern is despite the fact that the sons were born after the war, so they could not have experienced its horrors personally. The study states that these findings are, “most consistent with an epigenetic explanation” and do not align with other factors such as socioeconomic standing, family structure, etc.
This study is not the first time humans have questioned the likelihood of a genetic link for trauma. A study analyzing Holocaust survivors at Bar Ilan University in Israel suggests that, “Holocaust survivors suffering from a post-traumatic stress disorder and their adult offspring exhibit more unhealthy behavior patterns and age less successfully in comparison to survivors with no signs of PTSD or parents who did not experience the Holocaust and their offspring.”
Many manifestations of inherited trauma have begun to be addressed in first generation immigrants in the US, where seeking help for psychological distress and trauma is more socially acceptable than in many other places around the world. This distress is compounded by epigenetic accumulations of trauma throughout the years. In their homeland, it is often the case that people suffer through war and death and do not have the option of acknowledging trauma, let alone seeking help for it, when it seems to be a natural part of life. When kids come to a country where these issues are finally addressed, it may be difficult for their parents to understand the extent of their suffering, or the idea that it can be alleviated. Education is key in understanding and overcoming inherited trauma.
Former CUNY School of Medicine Assistant Professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular & Biomedical Sciences, Dr. Michelle Juarez sheds some light on the genetic component of trauma, stating that, “Not just mutations can contribute to our response to environmental factors. This is an especially important consideration for the mammalian reproductive cycle, because genetically we originally develop in our mothers before they are born. Therefore the exposures of our great-grandmothers will affect our mothers and then be carried forward to manifest during our lives. This epigenetic pattern of inheritance, e.g. heritable changes that alter gene expression without changing the DNA sequence, can have dramatic results on future generations.”
There is current research being done on the topic by demonstrating how the model of inheritance described by Dr. Juarez has the ability to alter immune system functions. This injury can accumulate and be passed down through generations, impacting even immunity to the influenza virus. Multigenerational weakening of the immune system provides an explanatory model of why there is such extensive variation of responses to both the flu and its vaccine, which cannot simply be explained by accounting for age and virus mutations. In mice, testing of this hypothesis revealed that generations up to, and including, great-grandchildren can be affected, with female mice being more affected.
To gauge the opinions and experiences of students at The City College of New York, The Campus, conducted a survey on intergenerational and inherited trauma. The City College community is among one of the most diverse in the world, housing students from all different backgrounds and experiences. Therefore, when asked if their ancestors or a previous generation underwent a trauma or traumatic event, either in a mass group or individually, 89% of students who took the survey answered yes. Nonetheless, of the same pool, when asked if they believed that trauma or traumatic events can leave a chemical mark on one’s DNA, causing it to be passed down through generations, the answers were mixed. Only 46.4% of students were positive in their belief that, yes, inherited trauma is passed down genetically, 28.6% were positive it was not possible at all, and 25% were simply not sure.
Lauren Rosen, a third-year sociology major, believes inheriting trauma is very possible, but is not sure whether this mark is genetic or psychological. She states, “I do think that inherited trauma would be capable of leaving a psychological mark, especially in the cases of those that trigger episodes of depression, PTSD, or generally involve other forms of mental illness. There is a genetic component to many of these conditions, regardless of the initial trigger, and are somewhat likely to be passed down to future generations.”
As a woman of Jewish descent, Rosen’s personal history of generational trauma stems from her people’s experience in the Holocaust. While her family was lucky enough to have migrated to America, much of her family is still very much wary of the traumatic events that occurred in the 1940s, as well as the continued long history, both prior and after, of anti-Semitism. Rosen states, “My grandmother, who is particularly proud of our Jewish heritage, still remains extremely wary of the anti-Semitism that fueled the Holocaust, as well as smaller-scale hate crimes all over the world. Her way of coping with this trauma seems to be reassuring herself of our continued lineage, mainly by questioning my sister and me about who will continue the traditions when she no longer can herself. This creates stress and sometimes even a minute level of guilt for both my sister and myself, as neither one of us really practices this religion.” For Rosen, inherited trauma functions more like a chain reaction, where the need to survive and continue their lineage and heritage, falls upon her. She states, “Younger generations do tend to reap the consequences of their elders’ traumas, and consequently, develop their own. I think that inherited trauma functions more like a chain reaction than a direct inheritance of particular traumas.” Further research must be done to better understand this link of human traumatic events on our chemical composition, both genetically and psychologically, to help alleviate this notion.