There are Other Ways Besides Genes to Physically Inherit Psychiatric Problems


There are many ways to mentally or even physically inherit traits from parents besides through genes, states a paper in Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews. And those other types of mechanisms, argues Cornell University pharmacologist Miklos Toth, are particularly important in trying to understand the heritability and genesis of psychiatric disorders.

“Inheritance is typically associated with the Mendelian transmission of information from parents to offspring by alleles (DNA sequence),” writes Toth. “However, empirical data clearly suggest that traits can be acquired from ancestors by mechanisms that do not involve genetic alleles, referred to as non-genetic inheritance.”

Toth points to “parental experience and exposure to certain environments, but also parental mutations and polymorphisms, because they can change the parental ‘intrinsic’ environment.” Toth states that studies of non-genetic inheritance have shown its importance in overall development, cardiovascular risk and metabolic symptoms.

“Multigenerational non-genetic inheritance is often interpreted as the transmission of epigenetic marks, such as DNA methylation and chromatin modifications, via the gametes (transgenerational epigenetic inheritance),” explains Toth. “However, information can be carried across generations by a large number of bioactive substances, including hormones, cytokines, and even microorganisms, without the involvement of the gametes. We reason that this broader definition of non-genetic inheritance is more appropriate, especially in the context of psychiatric disorders, because of the well-recognized role of parental and early life environmental factors in later life psychopathology.”

(Abstract) Mechanisms of Non-Genetic Inheritance and Psychiatric Disorders (Toth, Miklos. Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews. (2015) doi:10.1038/npp.2014.127.)


  1. It was very odd for me when a bunch of doctors, who did not know me or my family, all claimed I had a “lifelong, incurable, genetic mental illness.” And they had “odd delusions” I would believe these claims of a “genetic” illness, despite the fact I knew I had no history of any mental illness in my family.

    As it turned out, according to all their medical records, those doctors were all a bunch of sick lunatics wanting to defame and poison me to cover up medical evidence of child abuse and a “bad fix” on a broken bone. How embarrassing for me, I used to think doctors were respectable. Now I know the “dirty little secret of the two original educated professions” – and they should be ashamed of themselves!

    I will concede, I do believe a lot of things are genetic, such as eye color, skin color, and IQ. And other things can be passed down to one’s children by parents that are perhaps not genetic, like a tendency to be a perfectionist, one’s sense of humor, or even one’s complete and utter lack of respect for psychiatric practitioners. My dad told me, a little too late, that he’d always considered psychiatrists to be quacks.

    It seems that since it’s now known that there’s no actual genetic validity to the DSM disorders, the psychiatrists are now trying to claim parental wisdom, or lack there of, is an inheritable trait? But maybe, sometimes, parents just get too busy, or forget to pass down wisdom in a timely fashion?

    I agree with my dad, psychiatrists are quacks, talk about good “‘non-genetic’ inheritance.” Please pass this “‘non-genetic’ inheritance” into everyone you know.

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    • You’re lacking some information, that’s all.

      89% or so of people with schizophrenia have no relative that they know of, who had schizophrenia. Yes, some people have schizophrenia that appears to ‘run in the family’.

      That type of schizophrenia accounts for a ‘high rate’ of schizophrenia in a few small populations – usually in small communities – one in S. Carolina, one in Ireland.

      That is because much of the genetics of schizophrenia is not inherited. But is still genetic. I know that’s hard to understand, but please bear with me.

      In other words, most people’s schizophrenia is from genetic mutations that occur in them, but not in their parents.

      Genes have an actual ‘code’ for how to make chemicals the body needs. These chemicals are mostly enzymes or proteins. They affect how the brain develops in the earliest moments of life. Some of them are more directly related to schizophrenia – they affect how neurotransmitters work and how nerve cells connect to each other.

      Some of the mutations are more basic, though, they affect how nerve cells migrate to their position in the brain in early moments of life, how they grow more basically.

      In general, all people have the same genes.

      It’s the code within the gene, that gets altered. In other words, we all have the same ‘words’ (genes) but in some, the ‘spelling’ is out of order. For example, instead of spelling out, ‘Make This Enzyme with two carbon atoms’ the gene says ‘Make this enzyme with XXo carbon atoms’ and the enzyme does not get made correctly. Our genes actually ALSO have lots of ways to CORRECT these errors. But some get through and wind up affecting how the brain, or body, develops.

      ALL people have mutations. They are part of the diversity of life. They are natural. Most of the time, the mutations do – absolutely nothing. But occasionally, they make a difference, in how the brain grows.

      The bottom line is this. The difference between the person with schizophrenia, and anyone else, is very, very small. The person with schizophrenia is not ‘deficient’ or ‘defective’. We’re talking about tiny differences, here.

      People with schizophrenia aren’t ‘bad’, they aren’t ‘mean’ and they aren’t ‘lazy’. They aren’t weak, they aren’t dumb, and they aren’t ‘wrong’ when they report to others what they see or hear. To be quite frank, there really isn’t anything wrong with the ‘inner being’ of the person with schizophrenia at all. They are not ‘flawed people’.

      I have never met a person with schizophrenia who lacked in character or personality or value, for example.

      The illness affects the brain, and so, perception – senses – what one hears, sees and feels.

      That’s it. That’s the bottom line. Treatment is not for the benefit of others – it’s to make it easier to deal with the changes to perception.

      If you have been diagnosed with schizophrenia or a related disorder, don’t think of your diagnosis as a disaster or anything to be ashamed of or get defensive about. It doesn’t mean you are ‘inferior’ or ‘defective’ – just ignore anyone who suggests otherwise. Treatment works. Success is a matter of finding the right treatment, the right doctor, and educating those around you.

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        • tusu – can you provide the links to studies about what you have written about?

          It does not sound familiar to me, although I am not familiar with actual studies, just with commentators on them. Those that I know say that no one has proved any genetic link to schizophrenia.

          There are however stuidies showing high levels of trauma, perticularly childhood traum in those diagnosed with schizophrenia

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      • I’m sorry but do you really think we here need this level of information:
        “Genes have an actual ‘code’ for how to make chemicals the body needs. These chemicals are mostly enzymes or proteins. …”
        Sounds a bit patronising, that one. Seriously? And what else? There are little creatures inside you which are called cells and some of them live in your brain and are called neurons… or something like that? This is not a forum for 5yr olds. I feel personally insulted but I guess you’re a psychiatrist – I should be already used to members of this profession treating me as if I was yet to obtain 1st grade reading skills.
        Secondly, it’s also not entirely correct but I guess that stems from the first problem.

        “That is because much of the genetics of schizophrenia is not inherited. But is still genetic.”
        This makes zero logical sense. First, phenotype is not 100% generically determined – only the range of possible phenotypes is somewhat limited by the genetic makeup. Secondly there are extragenomic modes of inheritance, some of them mentioned in the article. If you make it simplistic then schizophrenia is a genetic trait. Like everything else including your eye colour, your profession and the age at which you die. All these things are influenced somehow and among other things by your genetic makeup. In the same time this influence is practically completely meaningless.

        “The person with schizophrenia is not ‘deficient’ or ‘defective’.”
        Please spare me the “anti-stigma talk” bs. I for all don’t care if you think “schizophrenics” are lazy or bad. The sheer idea of talking this way about how “schizophrenics” are or aren’t is akin to talking about how blacks are or women are – you get the idea (I hope).

        Lastly I’m sorry to say but your description of “schizophrenia” (I think you mean psychosis in here) is so dumbed sown that I find it hard to say if you have such a superficial idea or you think people here are still kindergartners.

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  2. Thanks for posting a link to this article, though unfortunately the whole article is not available, only the abstract which doesn’t talk about any actual mechanisms. In any case, I think this is an interesting issue. Things such as the environment (hormones, cytokines, etc) inside mother’s body and then later on upbringing, environment and so on all combined perhaps explains a chunk of why psychiatric problems often run in families.

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  3. Most people who believe in a religion believe in the same one as their parents…… call me crazy but I don’t think genes or cytokines or what ever are involved at all….

    I guess if you don’t realise that what gets called mental illness is just the result of culture you are going to come up with the sort of mumbo jumbo in this article….

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    • Upbringing has a huge influence. But I think there are most probably many ways to propagate mental issues to offspring. And example: Inside a woman’s womb there is an embryo about to develop. At first it’s just a combination of molecules, or whatever. After that point, all of developments that go on in building that human baby inside the mother are affected by the hormonal, etc, chemical issues that go inside mother’s body. Hormones, cytokines, etc, of mother shape up how the cells will unfold to a real human being, before the human baby is even “out”.

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  4. We have bodies…. time for psychiatrists to get over it. Calling someone mentally ill is just to say you disapprove of them….. same as calling someone fat is to disapprove of them if thats whats current in your culture… its all just cultural…..

    All bodies are different…. all people are different…. not better, not worse…. we are all just different….

    Attempting to reframe the social denunciation that is “mental illness” in to a denunciation of some ones endocrine system or cytokines is a neat trick but it won’t alter the truth of the matter….

    But then psychiatry isn’t about truth….. its about control…. so nice try but no cigar.

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  5. Get over it, Hermes. Mental illness really truly is a myth. It’s not that they just aren’t getting detected yet or are not getting called the right thing. The biological definition is attempted specifically for the game of so-called diagnosis, and the object of that game is to declare you incompetent at “caregivers'” convenience and to force you to believe it and then pay big bucks for the awesome favor.

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    • Sorry that I have the opinion that things such as prolonged exposure to stress may cause elevated stress hormones and inflammation related cytokines, etc, and that kind of action can also cause several types of issues in body, including brain. I don’t think the wrong thing is in trying to explain all that goes on in body through biology. The wrong thing is when some people try to explain other people’s behaviour using bad biological reasoning, such as “some people are born biologically bad, because of this gene”, etc. Some people often use some concepts of biology to promote their agenda that some people are inferior to other, and so sone. It’s the “original sin” concept in a new dress.

      I do still think that for instance, the function of immune system and so on affects our mental state. For instance, when you have a flu, you don’t feel like moving around a lot. You may feel like you want to stay in bed a lot instead. Why do you feel like this when you have flu? Maybe it has to do with cytokines, hormones, etc, running around in your body?

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    • I mean, thinking about these things in biological level is not the wrong thing to do. It’s just one level to think about these issues. The problem start when some people use some genetic, neuro or other related stuff to promote their more political opinions.

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  6. I also think that it will not work to say that all things related to biology has nothing to do with real issues. Psychological stress may cause elevated stress hormones, lack of sleep and so on, which may cause other issues in body, such as increase in inflammation related cytokines, “dysfunctional” HPA axis and so on. These things can often be mapped to what goes on in your mind and daily life as well. Each thought we have in our mind is also somehow directly related to changes in our body, including our brain.

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  7. I actually think this “movement of survivors” would benefit if there were more people who actually know about biology and neuroscience. Biology and neuroscience as such is not bad or good, it’s at best just neutral information about what goes on in our bodies. Psychiatrists and other people often use some silly biological reasoning to promote their cause. It’s possible that some people in our “movement” who know more about biology will reason against those claims on more biological level as well. For instance, I guess the “movement” has also largely used those Andreasen claims about brain shrinkage from neuroleptics to promote their case. It’s biology too,

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    • I agree with you, there is no sense in completely denying that biological causes may exist or that biological processes may exacerbate psychological problems. For instance, few who have experienced the psychiatric adverse effects of prescription or non-prescription drugs will be able to deny that the brain is massively effected by these chemicals and a number of unusual mental states can be induced by them. (Only time I was really paranoid was after being slipped mescaline in a drink!) I think the biggest problem in psychiatry is the semi-arbitrary grouping of people by their “symptoms” and assuming that all “symptoms” have the same cause and require the same intervention. It seems quite bizarre to me that they are spending SO much time trying to “prove” some degree of heritability when you can’t really do anything about that anyway. Why don’t we focus on the things we DO control, like the stressful environment, and just accept that different biological substrates may be associated with different reactions to the same stressors. Seems like a lot of time wasted to prove something kind of obvious and not very useful in determining how to help.

      —- Steve

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  8. Their is very little to be gained from having an argument with people who have what amounts to an ideological position….. no evidence will ever convince them of anything…… you can’t argue someone out of a position with reason if they never reasoned themselves into that position in the first place….

    It’s better to just posit an alternate point of view and leave it at that for the most part when dealing with ideologically driven zealots….

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  9. I generally agree with Hermes–more knowledge is always better. But biology is hardly neutral in practice, is it? We have viagra, but no vaccine for ebola. We have haldol, but no cure for multiple schlerosis. Medicine is in the dark ages–I was told that by a kidney surgeon emeritus from U.C.L.A.

    You have to be your own advocate and grow your own wisdom. Mental illness as defined by medicine today is mythological. Much of today’s medical information is mythological.

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    • Ann, biology as a concept is neutral, like mathematics, cosmology and physics. It’s a natural science that studies living organisms. Of course, in practice scientists study and promote other things more than others, sometimes based on their own interests, sometimes based on funds, etc. For instance, in pharmacology what gets studied is often related to funds from pharma. Some people also use biological concepts, such as genetics or neuroscience, to reason that some groups of people are somehow inferior by birth. And so on.

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  10. Being free to disagree is a luxurious position is it not….

    Who gets to say what counts as a legitimate form of knowledge?

    A kidney surgeon emeritus from UCLA you say….. was this at an Occupy demo? I did spot some very very expensive tents…. must have been one of them…..

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  11. If mental illnesses are propagated from mother to offspring through non-genetic ways, it doesn’t have to mean that, for instance, “schizophrenia” is any single issue in nervous system, such are broken dopamine receptors or malformed brain. What I’m thinking is maybe more that maybe if mother is constantly very stressed up, has starvation, uses drugs, etc, while pregnant, maybe these things can affect things such as how baby’s immune system functions, etc. I don’t think “schizophrenia” is any single neurological disease, but I guess things such as function of immune system, metabolism, stress hormones and so on can contribute to some cases. Same things with bipolar, depression, etc.

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    • Also, if it the case that some things such as the function of endocrines, immune system, metabolism and so on is inherited in some epigenetic manner, and it affects health of offspring, to me it sounds like maybe it’s also possible to try to change these things with things such as proper diet, exercise, meditation, better environment, etc. It doesn’t sound like the strict “original sin” concept; “you are inferior by birth”.

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    • “… if mother is constantly very stressed up, has starvation, uses drugs, while pregnant, maybe these things can affect things such as how baby’s immune system functions, etc.”

      There are studies proving this is true, Hermes, you are correct. My recollection is there were some good studies done on the Irish potato famine, although it could have been some other crisis. Nonetheless, what happens to a mother while pregnant does affect the child.

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  12. Ok lets say that everything in the article is completely true, that there are all these myriads of way to “pass on” “mental illness” to your child… the logical conclusion is that people, men and women, should make sure they are in optimal condition down to the cellular level at the time of reproduction or else! Be careful… might create a scary illness in utero! Ok, so how many people are in this peak condition at any one time? I think we’ll have about 2 couples reproducing a year. And hey! Presto! No more “mental illness”… also no humans 🙂

    Seriously, everything is said to be harmful these days for a baby in the womb. It is causing pregnant women a lot of stress… about the things they eat, the products they use, the activities they engage in etc. Obviously be reasonably cautious, don’t eat raw meat, avoid medications as much as possible and whatnot but seriously! The stress caused by the scientific motherhood police is probably causing more harm to baby than anything a pregnant woman puts in her mouth.

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  13. Tres cool and right to the point, fluffybunny. The cause of a mental illness is that someone labels you with it. People who believe that psychiatric problems as biological differences become in and of themselves medically caused are mixed up. Psychiatric problems just are personal differences and there could never be some established standard to approach that would tell us what to be and do.

    I recognize the reality of dysfunction that shows up as problems with emotional regulation and cognition, some way I have gotten that makes me have to work harder or want relief from drugs, but the drug is for me and can’t act on some disorder or illness. At least not on any psychiatric one. Biological definitions, however perfect, won’t make mental illness exist as such. Everyone loves believing that someone who’s busy playing doctor about problems in living is going to become our very own hero.

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