Epigenetic Inheritance: Can We Pass Our Experiences to Future Generations?

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Ever wondered if our genes alone determine who we are? Well, there’s more to the story!

Since the groundbreaking sequencing of the human genome, the buzz around “epigenetics” has grown. It suggests that our daily choices, like what we eat, the air we breathe, and even our emotions, might impact not only our genes but also those of future generations.

While we know the environment can affect gene expression and lead to diseases, the long-lasting effects on future descendants are still a puzzle. And although epigenetic inheritance has been observed in plants, its contribution to humans is uncertain.

This article explores the current research on epigenetic inheritance and delves into the captivating realm of inherited traits beyond DNA.


Future Generations May Have Epigenetic Traits of Their Parents’ Experiences

What Is Epigenetic Inheritance?

Epigenetics refers to the modifications in the gene expression profile of a cell that are not caused by changes in the DNA sequence itself.

Environmental exposures, lifestyle choices, and developmental processes can influence these modifications. Epigenetic changes can alter how genes are “read” and expressed, affecting cellular functions and impacting an organism’s traits.

Thus, epigenetic inheritance refers to the transmission of specific epigenetic marks from one generation to the next. There are two main types of epigenetic inheritance: intergenerational epigenetic inheritance and transgenerational epigenetic inheritance.

  • Intergenerational epigenetic inheritance: involves the transmission of epigenetic marks from parents to their offspring. The epigenetic marks acquired during an individual’s lifetime can be passed on to their children, influencing their development.
  • Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance: goes beyond the direct parent-offspring relationship. It refers to the transmission of epigenetic information from grandparents to their grandchildren, bypassing the immediate offspring.


Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance mechanisms ph
Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance mechanisms. Source: Frontiers In Molecular Neuroscience

According to the classical definition, environmental triggers experienced by a pregnant female (F0) can impact not only the first new generation (F1) but also its germ cells, which represent the second generation (F2). As a result, changes in the third generation (F3) can be attributed solely to epigenetic inheritance.


How Does Epigenetic Inheritance Occur?

Direct Epigenetics


Direct epigenetics (DE) refers to the changes in gene expression during a person’s lifetime. It involves the action of special proteins called transcription factors that can quickly control how genes are activated or silenced.

These factors are crucial in triggering a chain reaction of events that can have lasting effects. Immediate-early genes are responsible for producing these regulatory proteins.

Non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs) are also involved in epigenetic processes, although there is an ongoing debate about whether they should be considered part of epigenetics.

The early stages of life, especially the first few months, are critical in shaping an individual’s development. Experiences during this time can leave a lasting imprint on gene expression and may influence mental health later in life.


Indirect Epigenetics

Indirect epigenetics (IE) is another way epigenetic inheritance occurs. It exists in two subcategories: within indirect epigenetics (WIE) and across indirect epigenetics (AIE).

  • WIE refers to the epigenetic changes that happen while the individual develops synchronously. It starts when the zygote is formed, and factors during gestation can indirectly influence the developing individual.
  • AIE transmits epigenetic changes from parents to offspring, even across generations. It involves the influence of the parents’ and grandparents’ earlier life experiences, which can affect the composition of germ cells and the intrauterine environment.


Certain events closer to conception may have stronger predictive power, but even distal events can play a role. These changes are asynchronous and can have long-lasting effects on the offspring’s development later in life.


What Are the Examples of Epigenetic Inheritance?

Animal Models


Epigenetic inheritance is supported by several lines of evidence from animal studies. One example is the impact of maternal behavior on offspring.

Specifically, the quality of maternal care can predict alterations in DNA methylation patterns in the offspring. For example, mothers’ behaviors like licking, grooming, and nursing can change DNA methylation, particularly in genes related to the stress response.

Meanwhile, early-life stress, such as maternal separation, has also been associated with altered methylation patterns in genes implicated in anxiety.

These findings suggest that environmental experiences can leave lasting epigenetic marks that influence future generations’ behavior and emotional well-being.

Studies have also explored the effects of stress on specific genes, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). The dysregulation of this gene has been linked to mental health disorders. Animal models of depression have shown downregulation of BDNF in certain brain areas, accompanied by changes in methylation patterns.


Clinical Evidence

Evidence of epigenetic inheritance in humans can also be seen in studies on the effects of the maternal environment during pregnancy on offspring.

For example, a lack of essential nutrients like protein, iron, or zinc can lead to cognitive deficits and even intellectual disabilities and autistic symptoms in the offspring.

Meanwhile, smoking during pregnancy can result in premature birth and deficits in motor skills, memory, and behavior. Maternal stress, specifically excess cortisol due to anxiety, can also cause neurodevelopmental damage in the fetus.

Compelling evidence from longitudinal studies also provides insights into indirect epigenetic inheritance. For instance, male children who experienced undernourishment in the womb during the Dutch famine of 1944-1945 and their offspring showed a higher risk of obesity, glucose intolerance, and coronary heart disease in adulthood.

Transgenerational trauma has also been studied, focusing on the offspring of war survivors, combat veterans, and refugee families.

A Norwegian longitudinal study on Vietnamese refugees revealed a heightened risk of mental disease in third-generation (F3) offspring when their grandparents were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder upon arriving in Norway.


Can We Prevent Transgenerational Trauma?

Environmental enrichment (EE), which provides cognitive stimulation and physical activity, has been found to modify behaviors and reduce stress responses in adult rodents.

An experiment used adult male mice to explore the transgenerational effects of paternal EE. Some mice were exposed to EE, while others were housed under standard conditions. After 4 weeks, they were mated, and their F1 generation was used to produce the F2.

The F1 and F2 offspring were then tested for anxiety and depression-related behaviors. Paternal EE resulted in increased body weights in male F1 and F2 offspring. While there were no significant changes in anxiety-related behaviors in the F1 generation, the F2 displayed reduced latency to immobility, indicating a depression-related behavior.

These findings demonstrate that paternal EE can transgenerationally impact offspring’s behavioral and physiological stress response.

The results highlight the importance of environmental factors in shaping future generations’ behavior and stress response. Understanding these mechanisms can inform further research to prevent pathological epigenetic inheritance and transgenerational trauma.

Such insights can also contribute to developing strategies to promote positive environmental influences to improve human mental health outcomes.


What Are Other Applications of Epigenetic Inheritance?

Evaluate and Monitor Therapeutic Efficacy


Epigenetic inheritance holds promising applications in medicine, particularly in identifying and managing increased disease risks among vulnerable offspring.

Doctors can utilize knowledge of epigenetic inheritance to inform patients about the heightened risk of certain diseases, particularly psychological conditions such as anxiety or depression, among the offspring of the F0 generation.

By understanding the potential transgenerational impact of epigenetic factors, healthcare professionals can proactively evaluate and monitor therapeutic efficacy during the treatment process. This process can involve assessing the response to interventions, such as psychotherapy or medication, and adjusting treatment strategies accordingly.


Assess Abnormalities During Pregnancy

In pregnancy care, epigenetic inheritance allows for assessing abnormalities and potential risks during the prenatal period. By recognizing the influence of parental epigenetic factors on offspring health, doctors can implement specialized monitoring and care plans to ensure the well-being of both the mother and the developing fetus.

This process involves surveillance during prenatal visits, screening for specific conditions, and tailored interventions to mitigate the impact of inherited epigenetic changes.

By incorporating the concept of epigenetic inheritance into pregnancy care, healthcare providers can enhance their ability to personalize treatment approaches and provide anticipatory guidance. This proactive approach can lead to early detection, intervention, and improved outcomes for individuals at risk of certain diseases.


Bottom Line

Epigenetic inheritance is a complex subject matter and still an active research area. It highlights the potential for non-genetic factors that have lasting effects on an organism’s biology. It underscores the importance of genetic and epigenetic factors in studying inheritance and disease susceptibility.

The findings on epigenetic inheritance provide evidence for its role in transmitting behavioral and emotional traits across generations. They highlight how environmental experiences can shape epigenetic modifications, which can then influence gene expression and contribute to the inheritance of certain characteristics and susceptibility to health conditions.

Epigenetic inheritance plays a vital role in medicine by helping doctors anticipate the risk of disease development. Understanding epigenetic mechanisms allows personalized treatment approaches, early disease detection, and identifying individuals who may benefit from specific interventions or preventive measures.



Lacal I. et al. (2018). Epigenetic Inheritance: Concepts, Mechanisms, And Perspectives. Frontiers In Molecular Neuroscience.


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