Traces of Genetic Trauma in Epigenetics

The healing power of your awareness, to live better, healthier, more joyful and conscious lives:

We are living in strange times, with much of the world under quarantine for the novel coronavirus—and that is precisely the kind of stress that may influence future offspring according to some scientists. A growing body of research suggests that trauma (like from extreme stress or starvation among many other things) can be passed from one generation to the next.


Here is how: Trauma can leave a chemical mark on a person’s genes, which can then be passed down to future generations. This mark does not cause a genetic mutation, but it does alter the mechanism by which the gene is expressed. This alteration is not genetic, but epigenetic.

Dr. Chris Mason Associate Professor at Weill Cornell Medicine, with appointments at the Tri-Institutional Program in Computational Biology and Medicine between Cornell, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Rockefeller University, and Director of the Mason Lab. He shared that “epigenetics, in simplified terms, is the study of the biological control mechanisms of DNA the light switches that turn genes on or off. What does that mean? In essence: epigenetics control how or why your genes are expressed.”

What would have seemed preposterous 20 years ago has become a fast-emerging field of study. Today the idea that a person’s experience could alter their biology and behavior of their children and grandchildren has gained serious traction. Animal and some smaller human studies have shown that exposure to stressors like immense stress or cold can trigger metabolic changes in subsequent generations—and we may just be living in such a time as we grapple with the mounting COVID-19 crisis.


The field of epigenetics gained real traction about a decade ago, when scientists published seminal research on the Dutch Hunger Winter, an extended period of famine that took place towards the end of World War II when the Nazis blocked food supplies in October 1944, thrusting much of the Netherlands into famine. When the Dutch were liberated in May 1945, more than 20,000 had died of starvation. Pregnant women were particularly vulnerable; and the famine affected the unborn children for the rest of their lives.

If our DNA is like a piano keyboard, the way the keys are played (the way genes are expressed) makes you who you are. Some keys are not played at all and others are always played. Some are played softly while others are played harshly. If, how, and when your genes are expressed ultimately makes you the unique individual you are. Think of it as “your song” or “the music of you.” Interestingly, your tune can change, and what causes that change is epigenetics.


Epigenetics is the science of gene expression. Your DNA is written in permanent marker; it cannot be changed or erased. Epigenetics is written in pencil: How our genes are expressed can change, thus we change our tune throughout our life.


Epigenetics is the interface between nature (the genes you inherited from your parents) and nurture (your life experiences). How your genes are expressed, whether they are turned off or on, or played softly or harshly, depends on the type of genes you inherited from your parents, your developmental stage (e.g., puberty, menopause), and your environment.


Danese, A., Moffitt, T.E., et al. (2009) “Adverse childhood experiences and adult risk factors for age-related disease: depression, inflammation, and clustering of metabolic risk markers.” Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 163; 12: 1135–43.

Lucassen, P.J., Oomen, C.A., et al. (2015) “Regulation of adult neurogenesis and plasticity by (early) stress, glucocorticoids, and inflammation.” Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol. 7; 9: a021303.

Lucassen, P.J., Naninck, E.F., et al. 2013 “Perinatal programming of adult hippocampal structure and function; emerging roles of stress, nutrition and epigenetics.” Trends Neurosci. 36; 11: 621–31.