Trauma May Be Passed on Through Father’s Sperm


A study published this week in Nature Neuroscience finds that traumatic stress in early life altered mouse microRNA (miRNA) expression, and behavioral and metabolic responses in the progeny. The researchers found that injecting sperm RNAs from traumatized males into fertilized eggs reproduced the behavioral and metabolic alterations in the resulting offspring.

Gapp, K., Jawaid, A., Sarkies, P., Bohacek, J., et al.; Implication of sperm RNAs in transgenerational inheritance of the effects of early trauma in mice. Nature Neuroscience. Online April 13, 2014 doi:10.1038/nn.3695

See also:
Sperm RNA Carries Marks of Trauma (Scientific American)
Sperm RNA carries marks of trauma (Nature)
Effects Of Traumatic Experiences, Like Depression, Could Be Passed On To Our Kids (Medical Daily)

Previous article“The Antidepressant Generation”
Next articleThe Power of Words: What the Wall Street Journal Didn’t Tell You
Kermit Cole
Kermit Cole, MFT, founding editor of Mad in America, works in Santa Fe, New Mexico as a couples and family therapist. Inspired by Open Dialogue, he works as part of a team and consults with couples and families that have members identified as patients. His work in residential treatment — largely with severely traumatized and/or "psychotic" clients — led to an appreciation of the power and beauty of systemic philosophy and practice, as the alternative to the prevailing focus on individual pathology. A former film-maker, he has undergraduate and master's degrees in psychology from Harvard University, as well as an MFT degree from the Council for Relationships in Philadelphia. He is a doctoral candidate with the Taos Institute and the Free University of Brussels. You can reach him at [email protected].


  1. The possible direction to head in here is what evolutionary theory suggests about the value of abnormal disorders, of maladjustment… Peter Breggin (I just met up with him at his Florida converence) very helpfully says that such reactions as we call schizophrenic, for instance, are in themselves natural responses of a fully adequately functioning CNS and brain to some highly abnormal stressors. I take this to mean natural for that particular person with that particular preparedness in operating within the capabilities of their willpower and their intelligence.

    That seems like the only serious way to investigate the phenomena, the only approach for getting as accurate as possible firsthand reports from persons suffering symptoms of pschological breakdown or distress, and the only objective stance for bracketing the value judgments that are part of deciding the good and bad of the change that the affected person feels and undergoes.

    The point is, if there ever was just the typical run of symptoms that we see over and over again these days, then it is very improbable that these are necessarily the wrong way for our brains, bodies, and minds to react in at least some cases. Certainly, in the remote past the shape that we could have gotten into emotionally, especially after the usual overzealous treatment regimen like nowadays, would have been fatal in short order. In primitive conditions, the social usefulness of individuals mattered immediately for group survival.

    I’m not saying that the capacity to get incapacitated gets passed through genes, of course, except in the sense that everyone can get psychologically incapacitated and life is too complicated for any wholesale immunity to that to exist. It has to depend on how we work at our stability ourselves, how we invent our own adjustment and survive the bad advice of how to get started on a happy journey in life in the first place.

    So, this experiment with mice is a drop in the bucket, but whether or not it plays out as good science or bad speculation has to do with how the research is followed up. If there is a kind of benefit to feeling down, distracted, or ineffectual as far as our safety within our natural environment or among peers, maybe during times of increased stress and indecision, then that would certainly mean that something like the psychosocial ideas of Breggin’s could well inform neuroscience.

    But I think it is doubtful that the categories of disorder could stay the same over long stretches of time, no matter who tried to define them, since such different behaviors matter over time to vastly diverse modes of survival and wildly changing social norms. So there is never going to be any such thing as investigating discrete biologically based entities that alter or disrupt personalities and behavior–nothing like what biopsychiatry promises to do.

    Everybody is just unique and sometimes vulnerable to extreme dysfunction and distress. But still there is no reason for believing that it is part of our heritage to have had generation after generation of ancestors who got stuck with lifetimes of incapacitation.

    Report comment