Wednesday 27 March 2019


Our children and grandchildren are shaped by the genes they inherit from us, but new research is revealing that experiences of hardship or violence that we experienced before our children were conceived can leave our experiences on them also via our own genes.

I learned about this possibility happening by using hypnosis.  I was quite proficient in my occasional practice of hypnosis. Let me give you an example. In the mid-1950’s, the Canadian navy permitted me to practice hypnosis on my fellow sailors. In one case, I was asked to give a post-hypnotic suggestion to a sailor who was going to have all his teeth removed. He couldn’t be given any drugs that would put him asleep through the operation since his heart would stop beating if he was given those drugs.  I put him asleep and then put the suggestion in his mind that he would sleep through the operation. While I was visiting my mother in Hollywood three days later, the sailor’s teeth were removed and he later told the dentist that he didn’t feel a thing while his teeth were being removed. 

I have a real fear of spiders (like millions of other people world-wide) so in 1953, while I was visiting my mother in Palm Springs, California, she agreed to let me hypnotize her. When she was asleep, I asked her to tell me if she is afraid of spiders. She then told me that a couple of years before I was born, she fell into a nest of spiders and ever since, she has been afraid of spiders. The fear ofspiders were in some of her genes that entered my body when I was conceived.

That was the first time I learned from her that she was afraid of spiders. Obviously I got that fear from her because it was in her genes which were passed on to me.
My grandfather on my mother’s side of our family was a highly respected missionary in northern Nigeria for thirty years beginning in 1905. He worked in the area that was prominently Muslim. He brought the first printing press into Nigeria and published school books for children in that part of Nigeria. My late uncle Frank, who was  my mother’s younger brother was a respected mammologist and spent his life working with wild animals. My grandfather’s genes were passed onto my uncle  and also passed onto me which resulted in me negotiating with a terrorist organization in 1975 on behalf of Canada, being the precursor  of the United Nations bill of rights  for young offenders, bringing into Canada compensation for innocent persons sent to prison and bringing in the law in Canada that anyone arrested and taken to a police station will be given the phone number  of 24 hour duty counsel provided by the Legal Aid in each of Canada’s provinces and territories. I did not seek remuneration nor received any remuneration for my work on these projects that I undertook.

In my opinion, I believe that what my uncle and I did during our lives was a direct result of my grandfather’s genes.

My oldest daughter put herself into university as I did when I was much younger and we both studied criminology etc. I put my studies to work for me as she also did for herself. She is currently one of the inspectors of the jails and detention centers in the Province of Ontario. Obviously, my genes relating to my experiences in the field of criminology passed onto to her.  Those particular genes didn’t pass onto my youngest daughter. She chose to be a chartered accountant. Those genes were passed onto her from her mother who spent most of her life working in offices.

My father was a rapist. I am not a rapist and neither was my brother when he was alive. This is evidence that not all the genes from our parents end up in our bodies.

But unlike most inherited conditions, they are not caused by mutations to the genetic code itself. Instead, the researchers were investigating a much more obscure type of inheritance such as  how events in someone’s lifetime can change the way their DNA is expressed and how that change can be passed on to the next generation.

This is the process of epigenetics, where the readability, or expression, of genes is modified without changing the DNA code itself. Tiny chemical tags are added to or removed from our DNA in response to changes in the environment in which we are living. These tags turn genes on or off, offering a way of adapting to changing conditions without inflicting a more permanent shift in our genomes.

But if these epigenetic changes acquired during our lives can indeed also be passed on to later generations, the implications would be huge.

However there were some good genes that ended up in both my body and my late brother’s body. Our grandfather never suffered from diabetes nor was he bald. Those good genes of our grandfather were passed onto both me and my late brother.

Your experiences during your lifetime—particularly traumatic ones, could have a very real impact on your own family for generations to come. There are a growing number of studies that support the idea that the effects of trauma can reverberate down the generations through epigenetics.

In 1864, nearing the end of the US Civil War, conditions in the Confederate prisoner of war camps were at their worst. There was such overcrowding in some camps that each of the prisoners who were  Union Army soldiers from the north, had the square footage of a grave for them to lay on the ground.  Prisoner death rates soared.

For those who survived, the harrowing experiences had marked many of them for life. They returned to society with impaired health, worse job prospects and shorter life expectancy. But the impact of these hardships did not stop with those who experienced it. It also had an effect on the prisoners’ children and grandchildren, which appeared to be passed down the male line of their families by their genes.

While their sons and grandsons had not suffered the hardships of the POW camps and if anything they were well provided for during  their childhoods however, they suffered higher rates of mortality than the general population. It appeared the POWs had passed on some element of their trauma via their genes to their offspring.

For the POWs in the Confederate camps, these epigenetic changes were a result of the extreme overcrowding, poor sanitation and malnutrition. The men had to survive on small rations of corn, and many died from diarrhea  and scurvy.

“There is this period of intense starvation,” says study author Dora Costa, an economist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “The men were reduced to walking skeletons.”

The sons of POWs had an 11% higher mortality rate than the sons of non-POW veterans

Costa and her colleagues studied the health records of nearly 4,600 children whose fathers had been POWs, comparing them to just over 15,300 children of veterans of the war who had not been captured.

The sons of POWs had an 11% higher mortality rate than the sons of non-POW veterans. Other factors such as the father’s socioeconomic status and the son’s job and marital status couldn’t account for the higher mortality rate, the researchers found.

This excess mortality was mainly due to higher rates of cerebral haemorrhage. The sons of POW veterans were also slightly more likely to die from cancer. But the daughters of former POWs appeared to be immune to these effects.

Some studies have proved more controversial than others. A 2015 study found that the children of the survivors of the Holocaust had epigenetic changes to a gene that was linked to their levels of cortisol, a hormone involved in the stress response.

“The idea of a signal, an epigenetic finding that is in offspring of trauma survivors can mean a lot of things,” says Rachel Yehuda, director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and an author of the study. “It’s exciting that it’s there.”

The study was small, assessing just 32 Holocaust survivors and a total of 22 of their children, with a small control group. Researchers have criticised the conclusions of the study. Without looking at several generations and searching more widely in the genome, we can’t be sure it is really epigenetic inheritance.

Yehuda acknowledges that the paper was blown out of proportion in some reports, and larger studies assessing several generations would be needed draw firm conclusions.

“It was one single small study, a cross-section of adults many, many years after parental trauma. The fact we got a hint was big news,” says Yehuda. “Now the question is, how do you put meat on the bones? How do you really understand the mechanism of what is happening?

Controlled experiments in mice have allowed researchers to hone in on this question. A 2013 study found that there was an intergenerational effect of trauma associated with scent. The researchers blew acetophenone – which has the scent of cherry blossom – through the cages of adult male mice, zapping their foot with an electric current at the same time. Over several repetitions, the mice associated the smell of cherry blossom with pain.

This unusual sex-linked pattern was one of the reasons that made Costa suspect that these health differences were caused by epigenetic changes.

Shortly afterwards, these males bred with female mice. When their pups smelled the scent of cherry blossom, they became more jumpy and nervous than pups whose fathers hadn’t been conditioned to fear it. To rule out that the pups were somehow learning about the smell from their parents, they were raised by unrelated mice who had never smelt cherry blossom.

The grandpups of the traumatised males also showed heightened sensitivity to the scent. Neither of the generations showed a greater sensitivity to smells other than cherry blossom, indicating that the inheritance was specific to that scent.

This sensitivity to cherry blossom scent was linked back to epigenetic modifications in their sperm DNA. Chemical markers on their DNA were found on a gene encoding a smell receptor, expressed in the olfactory bulb between the nose and the brain, which is involved in sensing the cherry blossom scent. When the team dissected the pups’ brains they also found there was a greater number of the neurons that detect the cherry blossom scent, compared with control mice.

Even the term “inheritance” should be qualified here, he adds. “The word inheritance suggests it has to be a faithful representation of a trait that’s passed down.”

The consequences of passing down the effects of trauma are huge, even if they are subtly altered between generations. It would change the way we view how our lives in the context of our parents’ experiences influences our physiology and even our mental health. That is why psychiatrists should look into the backgrounds of their patient’s parents to see if they have inherited the same mental experiences their patents are suffering from. If so, then their patient’s parents passed on the genes the psychiatrist’s patients have inherited.

Perhaps in the future, scientists will be able to remove bad genes that have been inherited from their parents and’or their grandparents.  If so, that could reduce the large number of people who are suffering from mental disease.

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