Lecture – A Translational Perspective on Intergenerational Trauma

Available with English captions.

Presented by Torsten Klengel, MD, PhD, McLean Hospital – McLean Forum lecture

A broad body of literature suggests that exposure to traumatic events in preceding generations can influence the risk of their offspring developing psychiatric disorders. Also, recent molecular studies show that the effects of the environment, including trauma, may be transmitted through biological mechanisms.

Research into intergenerational trauma has provoked a controversial discussion around if and how humans may inherit information on the experiences of their parents and grandparents.

Watch now to learn more about:

  • The concept of intergenerational trauma
  • Differences between inter- and transgenerational effects
  • Basic concepts of molecular studies focusing on inter- and transgenerational phenotypes
  • Studies on rhesus monkeys that show possible molecular mechanisms of transmission across generations

In this lecture, Klengel explains that the transmission of information on environmental factors across generations is a widespread phenomenon. Animal studies and clinical models involving humans have detected this effect. Klengel is the director of McLean’s Translational Molecular Genomics Laboratory.

Klengel describes studies of Native Americans, African Americans, and refugees, as well as of Holocaust survivors, and their offspring. Evidence from these studies supports a link between trauma in previous generations and depression, PTSD, anxiety, and attention deficiency in their children. Positive outcomes, such as resilience, have also been shown in the offspring of those who have experienced trauma.

Klengel reports that there are many theories on the ways that information can be transmitted from one generation to the next. Parent-child interactions, in-utero effects, differences in parenting styles, and socioeconomic factors may have an impact on how trauma passes from generation to generation.

Also, Klengel points out that intergenerational studies on humans take a long time to conduct. This makes it difficult to prove epigenetic effects across generations.

Given the issues with human-based studies, Klengel explores molecular studies involving rhesus monkeys. He describes research that focuses on inter- and transgenerational phenotypes. These studies include investigations into epigenetic biomarkers of fear and intergenerational effects of infant maltreatment. This research, Klengel explains, suggests ways that trauma can lead variations in behavior and changes in the brain on a molecular level.

Klengel also considers the potential impact of intergenerational trauma research. He discusses how these findings could affect the ways clinicians approach patients. He also points toward future areas of study.