Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics: Epigenetics

In the early nineteenth century a French scientist named Jean Baptiste Lamarck decided that we acquired characteristics from experiences that our parents underwent. Russian communists applied this to agriculture but, no matter, it was a widely discredited theory…..until recently. Now this avowed Marxist position may have been resurrected a bit. There is a new field called epigenetics that states pretty much what Lamarck believed. So what is the evidence? And what exactly is it? What Lamarck said was that individuals acquire characteristics as a result of their environment, and now, these characteristics can be passed on to the offspring.

Much of the work in epigenetics has to do with diet; a mother’s diet influences the offspring’s physiology. Epigenetics has to do with how genes are regulated and influenced by the experience of the baby. I believe it has more to do with the fetus who resides in the womb; that his experience is influenced forevermore by the mother’s diet but also by her moods, her anxiety and depression. Has the genetic switch been delayed or was it premature? This can happen without making a radical change in the gene itself but rather in how it is expressed, whether it is shut off or on. What we are discussing is how a mother’s interaction with her environment can pass this on to her offspring. I think we need to understand that a fetus in the womb is always trying to adapt to his environment and that how genes will evolve and be expressed depends on that adaptation. For example, a mother who is anxious and who has depleted much of her serotonin supplies cannot fulfill the young fetal need for his own serotonin supplies. He may well grow up deficient in inhibitory or repressive capacity and be an anxiety case forevermore; this evolves into attention deficit in his youth and his continued inability to have a cohesive cognitive ability. I think it is extremely important that all this occurs while the fetal brain is rapidly developing and needs proper input to evolve normally. An anxious mother is so agitated that the neuronal input into the baby she is carrying is so extreme that he cannot adapt and integrate this input. Thereafter, this is the kind of person who cannot accept too much stimulation because the internal input is so great that anything from the outside, just two terms papers, can be overwhelming.

I have discussed the work of Michael Meaney of McGill University who has worked with mice and found that very early neglect by the mother results in lifelong alterations. In thirteen men who had committed suicide, all of whom suffered from child abuse, there were epigenetic effects. Abuse has many forms but to me those most deleterious is the abuse of a mother who smokes, drinks or takes drugs during pregnancy. Abuse means adversely affect a child’s development. Meaney found the same changes in thirty five people who suffered from schizophrenia. Here, several of the genes involved with the unfurling of key neurotransmitters (which ordinarily help to repress pain or noxious stimuli) where affected. New work has related epigenetics to the occurrence of cancer. What has been called the effects on epigenetic settings I call changing the set-points of many biologic states; this includes the set-points of the neurotransmitters that w
Ill later make us chronically comfortable or uncomfortable. Not feeling good in our skin is one way to state it. What is very new is that experiences of the mother affects the sperm of the offspring, and that may affect how the grandchildren develop. It may be that smoking or drug taking in while the embryo is just forming can later affect sperm production. The meaning of all this is that what happens in the womb while the organism is getting organized can affect the baby for a lifetime. It is so important that we not neglect this period when we attempt to understand and treat those with emotional problems. The more remote the imprint the more widespread the later effects, in my opinion. When a carrying mother is under stress her stress hormone level is high. When the levels remain high for a long time the immune system is compromised, and that might well affect the immune status of the offspring. And as I note elsewhere, a strong immune system (natural killer cells) is needed to stay on the lookout for newly developing cancer cells. It is not that a deficient immune system can lead to cancer, it is that a weak maternal immune system does not impart a strong immune capability to the baby; and the same dislocated physiology of the mother can also affect the fetus, setting the stage for later catastrophic disease. Womb-life has largely been neglected in the psychological literature. It is time to reorient ourselves.


Are small feet and small breasts desireable? Is it good or bad? It’s more serious than that. It is neither good nor bad but whether that size has arrived at its genetic destination. That is, due to heredity has the size fulfilled the genetic intention? If not, there can be serious repercussions. What it means to me, and now we leave the arena of strict science, is that repression has interceded to slow down or inhibit growth. How do I know? Some of my patients have reported foot growth, chest growth, breast growth and other kinds of growth after about a year of therapy. (We have a letter of a former patient who reported foot growth of several sizes after therapy). All that has happened in my therapy is lifting repression and liberating pain. If we reason backward we might say that repression probibited proper growth from taking place. That means to me constant pressure in key sites against growth; against genetic destinations. And that again can mean the possibility of serious illness, possibly cancer. Pressure on the cells to stop this unfolding can be enormous. Until one has seen the liberation of pain it is difficult to comprehend.

So we can only say that one’s breasts are too small when we see if they grow as a result of this liberation. And I believe that will only happen when the patient arrives at deeply implanted pain, at birth and before, when so many hormones are affected; where so many set-points are dislocated and fixed. I think that, in this sense, the therapy may have an anti-cancer effect. Can you imagine the pressure our biology exerts to fulfill its genetic promise? That pressure continues against a constant pressure to hold it back. The result too often can be disease as the cells become deformed and dislocated. It is not only the obvious breasts and feet, which are, after all, measureable, but there my be so effects we cannot measure; for example, the kidneys, heart or liver. We see that wherever we have looked, (serotonin/impramine: natural killer cells) there are significant changes. We would expect the same with key organ systems. In other words, pain and repression are laid down as total experience, which means that just about every system is involved in the imprint of the memory. So we would expect that all key organ systems would be affected. That remains to be studied. But we would also expect that those systems, which are inherently weak and vulnerable, would be seriously affected by that repression. The answer? Have a good gestation and birth and infancy. Failing that, relive the key pains set down and undo the massive repression.

There are effects we cannot measure; for example, the kidneys, heart or liver. We see that wherever we have looked, (serotonin/impramine: natural killer cells) there are significant changes. We would expect the same with key organ systems. In other words, pain and repression are laid down as total experience, which means that just about every system is involved in the imprint of the memory. So we would expect that all key organ systems would be affected. That remains to be studied. But we would also expect that those systems, which are inherently weak and vulnerable, would be seriously affected by that repression. The answer? Have a good gestation and birth and infancy. Failing that, relive the key pains set down and undo the massive repression.

In writing about the imprint, I will note again that one way we know that very early imprinted pain endures is that many entering patients have high stress hormone levels which normalize after one year of the therapy. What this may mean is that the imprint endures, is a constant danger, and must be fought against. That danger is signaled by the high cortisol (stress hormone) levels. Why is it, then, that the levels come down to normal after a time? Because the imprint is no longer a force; It is now simply a memory. The force of the pain has been felt and integrated. It is not as though there is a reliving of the memory and then we find changes in the imprint; it is that the way the memory is held and engraved is through these various changes such as in stress hormone levels. The danger is no longer in evidence; the system can relax. The battle is over. As all systems normalize it means that there is no longer an irrevocable memory to deal with. The imprint as a total physiologic event no longer exists. Can we become neurotic again? Not in the same way because the harmful memory is gone. What we often cannot change are the secondary changes already in evidence due to the damage inflicted beforehand.

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Review of "Beyond Belief"

This thought-provoking and important book shows how people are drawn toward dangerous beliefs.
“Belief can manifest itself in world-changing ways—and did, in some of history’s ugliest moments, from the rise of Adolf Hitler to the Jonestown mass suicide in 1979. Arthur Janov, a renowned psychologist who penned The Primal Scream, fearlessly tackles the subject of why and how strong believers willingly embrace even the most deranged leaders.
Beyond Belief begins with a lucid explanation of belief systems that, writes Janov, “are maps, something to help us navigate through life more effectively.” While belief systems are not presented as inherently bad, the author concentrates not just on why people adopt belief systems, but why “alienated individuals” in particular seek out “belief systems on the fringes.” The result is a book that is both illuminating and sobering. It explores, for example, how a strongly-held belief can lead radical Islamist jihadists to murder others in suicide acts. Janov writes, “I believe if people had more love in this life, they would not be so anxious to end it in favor of some imaginary existence.”
One of the most compelling aspects of Beyond Belief is the author’s liberal use of case studies, most of which are related in the first person by individuals whose lives were dramatically affected by their involvement in cults. These stories offer an exceptional perspective on the manner in which belief systems can take hold and shape one’s experiences. Joan’s tale, for instance, both engaging and disturbing, describes what it was like to join the Hare Krishnas. Even though she left the sect, observing that participants “are stunted in spiritual awareness,” Joan considers returning someday because “there’s a certain protection there.”
Janov’s great insight into cultish leaders is particularly interesting; he believes such people have had childhoods in which they were “rejected and unloved,” because “only unloved people want to become the wise man or woman (although it is usually male) imparting words of wisdom to others.” This is just one reason why Beyond Belief is such a thought-provoking, important book.”
Barry Silverstein, Freelance Writer

Quotes for "Life Before Birth"

“Life Before Birth is a thrilling journey of discovery, a real joy to read. Janov writes like no one else on the human mind—engaging, brilliant, passionate, and honest.
He is the best writer today on what makes us human—he shows us how the mind works, how it goes wrong, and how to put it right . . . He presents a brand-new approach to dealing with depression, emotional pain, anxiety, and addiction.”
Paul Thompson, PhD, Professor of Neurology, UCLA School of Medicine

Art Janov, one of the pioneers of fetal and early infant experiences and future mental health issues, offers a robust vision of how the earliest traumas of life can percolate through the brains, minds and lives of individuals. He focuses on both the shifting tides of brain emotional systems and the life-long consequences that can result, as well as the novel interventions, and clinical understanding, that need to be implemented in order to bring about the brain-mind changes that can restore affective equanimity. The transitions from feelings of persistent affective turmoil to psychological wholeness, requires both an understanding of the brain changes and a therapist that can work with the affective mind at primary-process levels. Life Before Birth, is a manifesto that provides a robust argument for increasing attention to the neuro-mental lives of fetuses and infants, and the widespread ramifications on mental health if we do not. Without an accurate developmental history of troubled minds, coordinated with a recognition of the primal emotional powers of the lowest ancestral regions of the human brain, therapists will be lost in their attempt to restore psychological balance.
Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D.
Bailey Endowed Chair of Animal Well Being Science
Washington State University

Dr. Janov’s essential insight—that our earliest experiences strongly influence later well being—is no longer in doubt. Thanks to advances in neuroscience, immunology, and epigenetics, we can now see some of the mechanisms of action at the heart of these developmental processes. His long-held belief that the brain, human development, and psychological well being need to studied in the context of evolution—from the brainstem up—now lies at the heart of the integration of neuroscience and psychotherapy.
Grounded in these two principles, Dr. Janov continues to explore the lifelong impact of prenatal, birth, and early experiences on our brains and minds. Simultaneously “old school” and revolutionary, he synthesizes traditional psychodynamic theories with cutting-edge science while consistently highlighting the limitations of a strict, “top-down” talking cure. Whether or not you agree with his philosophical assumptions, therapeutic practices, or theoretical conclusions, I promise you an interesting and thought-provoking journey.
Lou Cozolino, PsyD, Professor of Psychology, Pepperdine University

In Life Before Birth Dr. Arthur Janov illuminates the sources of much that happens during life after birth. Lucidly, the pioneer of primal therapy provides the scientific rationale for treatments that take us through our original, non-verbal memories—to essential depths of experience that the superficial cognitive-behavioral modalities currently in fashion cannot possibly touch, let alone transform.
Gabor Maté MD, author of In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction

An expansive analysis! This book attempts to explain the impact of critical developmental windows in the past, implores us to improve the lives of pregnant women in the present, and has implications for understanding our children, ourselves, and our collective future. I’m not sure whether primal therapy works or not, but it certainly deserves systematic testing in well-designed, assessor-blinded, randomized controlled clinical trials.
K.J.S. Anand, MBBS, D. Phil, FAACP, FCCM, FRCPCH, Professor of Pediatrics, Anesthesiology, Anatomy & Neurobiology, Senior Scholar, Center for Excellence in Faith and Health, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare System

A baby's brain grows more while in the womb than at any time in a child's life. Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script That Rules Our Lives is a valuable guide to creating healthier babies and offers insight into healing our early primal wounds. Dr. Janov integrates the most recent scientific research about prenatal development with the psychobiological reality that these early experiences do cast a long shadow over our entire lifespan. With a wealth of experience and a history of successful psychotherapeutic treatment, Dr. Janov is well positioned to speak with clarity and precision on a topic that remains critically important.
Paula Thomson, PsyD, Associate Professor, California State University, Northridge & Professor Emeritus, York University

"I am enthralled.
Dr. Janov has crafted a compelling and prophetic opus that could rightly dictate
PhD thesis topics for decades to come. Devoid of any "New Age" pseudoscience,
this work never strays from scientific orthodoxy and yet is perfectly accessible and
downright fascinating to any lay person interested in the mysteries of the human psyche."
Dr. Bernard Park, MD, MPH

His new book “Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script that Rules Our Lives” shows that primal therapy, the lower-brain therapeutic method popularized in the 1970’s international bestseller “Primal Scream” and his early work with John Lennon, may help alleviate depression and anxiety disorders, normalize blood pressure and serotonin levels, and improve the functioning of the immune system.
One of the book’s most intriguing theories is that fetal imprinting, an evolutionary strategy to prepare children to cope with life, establishes a permanent set-point in a child's physiology. Baby's born to mothers highly anxious during pregnancy, whether from war, natural disasters, failed marriages, or other stressful life conditions, may thus be prone to mental illness and brain dysfunction later in life. Early traumatic events such as low oxygen at birth, painkillers and antidepressants administered to the mother during pregnancy, poor maternal nutrition, and a lack of parental affection in the first years of life may compound the effect.
In making the case for a brand-new, unified field theory of psychotherapy, Dr. Janov weaves together the evolutionary theories of Jean Baptiste Larmarck, the fetal development studies of Vivette Glover and K.J.S. Anand, and fascinating new research by the psychiatrist Elissa Epel suggesting that telomeres—a region of repetitive DNA critical in predicting life expectancy—may be significantly altered during pregnancy.
After explaining how hormonal and neurologic processes in the womb provide a blueprint for later mental illness and disease, Dr. Janov charts a revolutionary new course for psychotherapy. He provides a sharp critique of cognitive behavioral therapy, psychoanalysis, and other popular “talk therapy” models for treating addiction and mental illness, which he argues do not reach the limbic system and brainstem, where the effects of early trauma are registered in the nervous system.
“Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script that Rules Our Lives” is scheduled to be published by NTI Upstream in October 2011, and has tremendous implications for the future of modern psychology, pediatrics, pregnancy, and women’s health.