Whilst debate1 over the comparative predictive power of psychotherapy has been re-ignited by attachment theory and emotional attachment2,3,4, (which adds an inter-generational dimension to the analysis and remediation of child and adult relationship issues), a sharper tool has emerged to address the colloquially age-old question.
‘…just how much of my parents’ lives have rubbed off on me?’
For those drilled from primary school to the post-graduate level on the mathematical determinism inherent in the Darwin/Mendel model of inheritance (as espoused by post space-race science curriculums the world over),
‘Hot-wired into everyone’s head is the best they’re gonna be; Growin’ up is not a matter of choice it’s a matter of wait and see.’ 5
it is somewhat pleasing that our (mostly intuitive and vaguely Lamarckian 6, 7) protestations have finally received some vindication. It now appears that, indeed, we are more than our genes 2.
Que behavioural epigenetics- a relatively new but burgeoning field first defined in 1942 8 purporting to explain how nurture, in fact, DOES shape nature 9.
‘Put simply, epigenetics refers to genome information not encoded in the DNA sequence, with the best-understood consequence of epigenetic marks being the control of gene expression’ 10.
Looking at it another way, epigenetics may be seen as the extra notations made by a composer relating to how a particular musical note (or, more saliently, a distinct group of notes) is to be played; the smallest changes or erasures can produce, to the trained ear, two very different symphonies from the same arrangement of these notes. Further evidence along these lines touts epigenetics as the solution to ‘the paradox of missing heritability11,12’, where emergent or dominant phenotypical traits display a disproportionately low number of base-pair coding correlates in the genome.
Anxiety, risk-taking behaviour, stress response, addiction, eating disorders, major depression, and bipolar disorder (amongst others) have been linked to epigenetic patterns via several mechanisms including DNA methylation, histone acetylation, and non-coding and coding RNAs13, which directly affect, for example, the on-off switching of DNA promoters/silencers and changes to molecular electronegativity already implicated in gene expression.
Furthermore, evidence that some epigenetic markers are retained from our grandsires14,16, are gender-specific in some but not all cases, and that our epigenetic footprints are plastic (read reversible?15) over our lifetimes, would suggest a multitude of opportunities for dynamic understanding and therapeutic intervention.
Finally, calls for caution in extrapolating the results from plant and lower order animal studies, especially regarding the extra complication of mammalian sexual reproduction, where the meiotic production of ‘germlines’ has been shown to ‘reset’ epigenetic markers 11,
‘A major barrier to transgenerational epigenetic inheritance is germline reprogramming, during which histone variants and their modifications, as well as small RNAs and DNA methylation, are all reset ‘ 16
have now been to some degree been obviated by data suggesting that this ‘reset to factory defaults’ is at best incomplete, and at worst futile in reversing the epigenetic imprint of our progenitors.
In conclusion, there appears to be real cause for those seeking help and healing to leverage knowledge of epigenetic principles when choosing their mental health practitioner.
- Owen, I.R. (2017) Attachment: a nest of vipers. The Psychologist: February 2017; Letters. P.07
- Fraley, R.C. (2014) A Brief Overview of Adult Attachment Theory and Research. https://internal.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm
- Becker-Weidman, Attachment-Focused Psychotherapy & Epigenetics: What your grandparents past on. http://www.attachment-focusedtreatmentinstitute.com/
- Skelly, A. (2017) Maintaining bonds: positive behaviour support and attachment theory. Clinical Psychology Forum, No. 290 February 2017; pp. 36-41
- TISM (Peter Minack, Damian Cowell, John Holt, Eugene Cester, Sean Kelly). Greg! The Stop Sign!!; from the album Machiavelli and the Four Seasons; Platinum Studios, September 1994.
- Meins, E. (2017)The Predictive Power of Attachment. The Psychologist: January 2017; pp. 21-24
- Fischer, A. (2014) Epigenetic memory: the Lamarckian brain. EMBO J. 2014 May 2;33(9):945-67. doi: 10.1002/embj.201387637. Epub 2014 Apr 9.
- Waddington, C.H. (1942) The epigenotype. Endeavour, 1, pp. 18-20
- Kellerman, N.P.F. (2013) Epigenetic Transmission of Holocaust Trauma: Can Nightmares Be Inherited? Isr J Psychiatry Relat Sci; Vol 50; No. 1
- Roth, L. (2013) Epigenetic mechanisms in the development of behaviour: advances, challenges, and future promises of a new field. Dev Psychopathol. 2013; 25 (4 0 2); pp. 1279-1291.
- Trerotola, M. et al. (2015) Epigenetic inheritance and the missing heritability. Hum Genomics; 9(1): 17.
- DeLisi, M. and Vaughn, M.G. (2015)The Vindication of Lamarck? Epigenetics at the Intersection of Law and Mental Health. Sci. Law 33: 607-628.
- Heard, E. and Martienssen, R.A. (2014) Transgenerational Epigenetic Inheritance: myths and mechanisms. Cell, Mar 27; 157(1): pp. 95-109
- Kings College London. (2017) Epigenetic changes at birth could explain later behaviour problems. Science Daily; 12 June 2017.
- Boyd, R. (2012) The Epigenetic Effect- How Body Mind Psychotherapy May be Rewriting Your Genes. http://energeticsinstitute.com.au
- Gerlinde, A.S. et al (2015) Ancestral experience as a game changer in stress vulnerability and disease outcomes. Bioessays 37: 602-611: Wiley Periodicals Inc.