The public reception of putative epigenetic mechanisms in the transgenerational effects of trauma

Rachel Yehuda, Amy Lehrner, Linda M. Bierer

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


There has been great interest in the possibility that effects of trauma might be passed from parent to offspring through epigenetic mechanisms. This topic has stimulated discussion and controversy in the scientific literature, the popular press, and culture at large. This article describes the initial observations that have led to recent examinations of epigenetic mechanisms in association with effects of parental trauma exposure on offspring. Epigenetic research in animals has provided models for how such effects might be transmitted. However, the attribution of any specific epigenetic mechanisms in human studies of offspring of trauma survivors is premature at this time. The article describes some of the ways in which initial epigenetic findings in the offspring of trauma survivors have been represented in the popular media. Reports have ranged from overly simplistic and sensationalistic claims to global dismissals. The authors discuss the importance of clarity in language when describing epigenetic findings for lay audiences, the need to emphasize the limitations as well as the promise of research on intergenerational transmission of trauma effects, and the importance of countering popular interpretations that imply a reductionist biological determinism. Scientists have an obligation to assist in translating important research findings and nascent avenues of research to the public. It is important to recognize the ways in which this research may unintentionally be received as supporting a narrative of permanent and significant damage in offspring, rather than contributing to discussions of potential resilience, adaptability, and mutability in biological systems affected by stress.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberdvy018
JournalEnvironmental Epigenetics
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Apr 2018


  • Holocaust
  • PTSD
  • epigenetics
  • glucocorticoids
  • intergenerational
  • resilience
  • trauma


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