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LATEST DIALOGUES Perhaps our Fears are not Ours?

Photo by Olivier Mercier

Photo by Olivier Mercier

Certain fears arising in response to the environment may be passed from generation to generation without changes in the genetic sequence.

This could have implications for families suffering from cycles of drug addiction, neuropsychiatric illness and other behavioral prsoblems, but so far the research has only been done in mice, and the results remain controversial.

In a 2014 study published in Nature Neuroscience, researchers found that the offspring of mice trained to associate electric shocks with the smell of acetophenone—a chemical with a scent similar to cherries and almonds—also displayed signs of fear when exposed to the chemical. This occurred even though the offspring had never experienced that scent before.

The next generation—the “grandchildren” of the mice—also inherited this fear reaction, as did mice born through in vitro fertilization using sperm donated from mice trained to fear acetophenone.

Although the researchers are not certain how this fear passes from one generation of mice to the next, they suspect it is due to a form of epigenetic modification. In epigenetics, the activity of certain genes—not the DNA sequence itself—is altered by a reversible chemical process, a change that may be passed onto offspring.

The researchers have yet to show how this works in mice, but other studies hint at the possibility of similar cross-generational changes in human. If it turns out to be true, then mental health problems caused by the environment might also be visited upon people’s children, and possibly even their grandchildren.

“To remain stable is to refrain from trying to separate yourself from a pain because you know that you cannot. Running away from fear is fear, fighting pain is pain, trying to be brave is being scared. If the mind is in pain, the mind is pain. The thinker has no other form than his thought. There is no escape.”
~ Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity


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Shawn Radcliffe is a science writer, yoga instructor and creator of fiction and humor. He has written about science, health, meditation and yoga for, Men's Fitness, Greater Good and more. He also tackles the humorous implications of spirituality and science on his blog, Branáin - Ravenously Curious.

3 Responses to “Perhaps our Fears are not Ours?”

  1. August 08, 2014 at 3:40 pm, Mit Jones said:

    This experiment presumes the reaction they are witnessing is fear, this would be displayed as a flight response. Behavior stimulated by electrical shock is problematic due to the feedback from the nervous system. Perhaps he could just smack them with a hammer.

    This experiment like most are unnecessary it tells us nothing about how information is processed, past on or more importantly where it is stored.

    If the 100th monkey theory is valid we eventually would see this behavior in all mice within that sub set.

  2. November 11, 2014 at 3:55 am, Matt Forsythe said:

    Hey that’s my illustration. You have two choices. Take it down or Pay me a license fee for using it. Email me at comingupforair AT gmail (Matt)

    • November 13, 2014 at 2:37 pm, SAND said:

      Dear Matt, sorry for the inconvenience… We found the image on the web without credits, we liked it and used it for this article. We have removed it from the website.

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