Parents’ Experiences Could Have Inheritable Effects on Offspring’s Mental Health
SAN DIEGO — The air we breathe, the food we eat, and the stress or happiness we feel could influence whether our offspring develop neurological disorders. Recent studies in animal models and human brain tissue document how a parent’s environment may affect future offspring. The findings were presented at Neuroscience 2016, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world’s largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.
DNA sequence is not destiny. The external environment can contribute to how the information stored in DNA translates into traits like height and risk for disease. What’s more, sometimes those contributions can be passed down from one generation to the next.
Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance refers to offspring inheriting specific patterns of gene activity generated by epigenetic changes unrelated to alterations in the underlying DNA sequence. Such epigenetic changes can switch genes on or off and determine what proteins are made, affecting the traits of offspring.
Epigenetic changes occur regularly and are naturally influenced by factors such as age and lifestyle. Scientists are beginning to understand how a parent’s experiences — like stress, diet, and drug use — may contribute to the risk for various neurodevelopmental diseases and disorders in offspring.
Recent research shows that:
- Female mice fed a high-fat diet before mating bore offspring with dysregulated gut bacteria as well as autism-like behaviors (Shelly A. Buffington, abstract 31.17, see attached speaker summary).
- In an animal model, binge alcohol consumption during adolescence impacts the DNA of future offspring and predisposes them to mental health disorders later in life, even when those offspring are never exposed to alcohol (Andie Asimes, abstract 728.08, see attached speaker summary).
- Treatment with the antidepressant fluoxetine during pregnancy may protect offspring from some of the long-term, detrimental effects of maternal stress in mice (Veronika Kiryanova, abstract 772.11, see attached speaker summary).
- Targeting the epigenetic control of a specific neurotransmitter gene in an area of the brain responsible for regulating mood promotes a faster response to antidepressants in a mouse model of depression (Carla Nasca, abstract 71.01, see attached speaker summary).
- Nerve cells from human brain tissue accrue unique mutations in their DNA that are not found in other body cells, representing an ongoing record of the life history of each individual nerve cell (Mollie B. Woodworth, abstract 19.01, see attached speaker summary).
The research was supported by national funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, as well as other public, private, and philanthropic organizations worldwide. Find out more about epigenetics at BrainFacts.org.