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World Psychiatry. 2018 Oct;17(3):243-257. doi: 10.1002/wps.20568.

Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: putative role of epigenetic mechanisms.

Author information

1
James J. Peters Bronx Veterans Affairs Hospital, Bronx, NY, USA.
2
Departments of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, NY, USA.

Abstract

This paper reviews the research evidence concerning the intergenerational transmission of trauma effects and the possible role of epigenetic mechanisms in this transmission. Two broad categories of epigenetically mediated effects are highlighted. The first involves developmentally programmed effects. These can result from the influence of the offspring's early environmental exposures, including postnatal maternal care as well as in utero exposure reflecting maternal stress during pregnancy. The second includes epigenetic changes associated with a preconception trauma in parents that may affect the germline, and impact fetoplacental interactions. Several factors, such as sex-specific epigenetic effects following trauma exposure and parental developmental stage at the time of exposure, explain different effects of maternal and paternal trauma. The most compelling work to date has been done in animal models, where the opportunity for controlled designs enables clear interpretations of transmissible effects. Given the paucity of human studies and the methodological challenges in conducting such studies, it is not possible to attribute intergenerational effects in humans to a single set of biological or other determinants at this time. Elucidating the role of epigenetic mechanisms in intergenerational effects through prospective, multi-generational studies may ultimately yield a cogent understanding of how individual, cultural and societal experiences permeate our biology.

KEYWORDS:

Intergenerational transmission; childhood adversity; developmental programming; epigenetic mechanisms; fetoplacental interaction; offspring of trauma survivors; post-traumatic stress disorder; trauma

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