Saturday, January 30, 2010
Epigenetics: The Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics
There is something we must immediately add to the theoretical mix: epigenetics; how very early events in the womb and at birth can alter the genetic unfolding. One genotype, a single genetic predisposition, can give rise to many phenotypes depending on what happens to those genes during gestation. So what we might imagine is genetic, is genetic-plus what happens to us in the womb. I was so surprised early on in my therapy when long-term patients reported that their wisdom teeth descended. Now I understand it better; the genetic unraveling toward its destination was deferred due to repression.
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.
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 his genes will evolve and be expressed depending on that adaptation. For example, a mother who is very unhappy from her own childhood pain, and who has depleted much of her serotonin supplies cannot fulfill the young fetal need for his own serotonin supplies. (His own supply does not kick-in until somewhere around the half-way mark). He may well grow up deficient in inhibitory or repressive capacity and be an anxiety/impulsive case forevermore; this can evolve into attention deficit in his youth. This will happen when the fetal set-points are readjusted because of events during womb-life. There may be a continued inability to have a cohesive cognitive ability; to focus and concentrate. I think it is 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, such as two term papers due immediately, can be overwhelming.
To get an idea of how early all this may begin, there is a study by the University of Miami School of Medicine that states that: “A review on (maternal) prenatal depression effects on the fetus and newborn suggests that fetal activity is elevated, growth is delayed, low birth weight common.”  It begins a lot earlier than we previously thought. As if to underscore this position, there is a study from Scientific American Mind, (Fetal Recall. January 2010)that is seeking out when consciousness actually begins. And they are quoted as stating that it begins in the womb. They introduced sharp sounds to the pregnant mother (a honking device placed on her abdomen). As they did it the fetus reacted significantly. But after a time the fetus stopped responding to it (Squirming. Heart rate stopped speeding up). He became habituated, got used to it, and it remained, therefore, as only a memory. He “learned” that the noise was no longer dangerous. And the memory endured.
Newborns of a depressed mother show a profile that mimics the mother’s prenatal state, including her physiologic state; this includes higher stress hormone levels, lower levels of dopamine and serotonin, and greater right frontal brain activity. What I think this means is that the right/feeling brain is forced to be hyperactive to deal with emotional push. It is, after all, the right prefrontal brain (orbitofrontal area) that maintains a history of our feelings and has a more internal focus. To summarize: Higher resting levels of stress hormones in the carrying mother can already have an effect on the later life of the offspring. It already presages the constant need for tranquilizers because the early imprint has lowered levels permanently. Then with even minor setbacks later on, the resonance factor can compound the pain level so that taking painkillers is a matter of urgency.
The concept of epigenetics has import for diagnosis. For example, one of my patients was told that she had a genetic vulnerability, very much like her mother had. It led to a diagnosis of a “very serious autoimmune disease.” If it were seriously genetic, as the doctors believed, then any chance to change her state would be close to nil. What this does is prevent us from seeing or investigating beyond the inheritance to factors that may have been equally important; what happened to the baby while being carried? Further, if there were something that altered the immune state while in gestation, perhaps one can relive and connect to it, thus affecting that imprint. Thus, it may be as a result of an experiencerather than inheritance that is ultimately significant. This patient did relive her traumatic birth, and, perhaps, that helped her make some progress against the disease. This happens, again, because in reliving, it is possible to gather up associated feelings and sensations that lie even below the later trauma but which may be related to it through frequency resonance. Reliving later events will usually bring up the earlier events and feelings that it resonates (triggers off) with. Earlier imprints will be re-represented on higher levels as the brain develops. Even though we are reliving something at the age of sixteen we are also dealing with the earlier part of the related feeling. That is why there is hope when we relive; we can attack imprints during gestational life. So when a feeling event brings up severe anxiety with it, it can mean that we are basically dealing with preverbal events where and when anxiety/terror is installed. The importance of differentiating between genetics and epigenetics is that we may be dealing with a reversible disease, not one that is inherited and cannot change. And indeed this is already being tested. In a paper by M. Szyf, (Dept. of Psychiatry, McGill University, Quebec. “The Epigenetic Impact of Early Life Adversity.” He reported on the reversibility of the epigenomes in animals. Using chemical agents they were able to reverse the changes caused by epigenetic events. This has great import for disease today; for certainly there may be genetic factors which only become manifest when certain traumas occur, but even after they occur we may be able to go back and change it. Hence reverse disease. Terribly important.
Researchers at Karolinska Medical Center, Sweden, have found that cesarean births can result in increased allergies, diabetes and leukemia risk. Mikael Norman states: “Our theory is that altered birth conditions could cause a genetic imprint in the immunecells that could play a role in later life.” Their work, as is that of others, indicates that stress around birth affects the genes. The assumption is that the fetus is not prepared for an “unnatural” birth. It is different from a vaginal birth where the stress gradually builds and can be adapted to.
There are experiments with pregnant primates. As a result of stress during pregnancy there is an adverse effect on the hippocampus (dealing with memory). It seems to shrink. And, as I have mentioned elsewhere, one has to wonder if this kind of stressful gestation can play a role in later Alzheimer’s. There is new evidence on this point: a study by Brigham Young University found that the size of the hippocampus was reduced when trauma occurred. (Neuroscience, Aug. 2009. See also, “Trauma, PTSD, Followed by Reduction of The Brain Involved with Memory.” Science Daily, Aug 27, 2008). It took a long time to discover this because there was no immediate damage; only after a long period did the damage show up. More importantly, again, there is no taking into account the unobserved trauma in the womb and at birth which, in my opinion, does permanent damage to the memory centers. It is not just an assumption; there is new research to demonstrate this: in a paper (reported in Science News, Jan. 4, 2010. “Acute Stress Leaves Epigenetic Marks on the Hippocapus), there is more and more evidence of this. A single trauma in rats can produce changes in their brains, and these changes are reflected in the memory centers such as the hippocampus. The changes that occur can also affect whether or not our genes are turned on or off. It is so difficult to differentiate between nature and nurture as causes because they are so intertwined as we mature.
A corollary of this is that as stress increases so does the mother’s level of cortisol. That, in turn, affects the brain structures. The investigators indicated: “If there is anything we all agree on it’s that the fetus is incredibly vulnerable and fragile, and that even subtle perturbations in the mother’s mood can have measureable effects on the fetus that last for years.” One additional finding. Stress while being carried, later lowers IQ, as well as anxiety, ADD and depression.
The thalamo-cortical circuits are finally established very late in gestation (thalamus to cortex and back). When amygdala-cortical circuits are in place it is then possible to have a mental appreciation of the pain we are in. It is before thalamic and amygdaloid circuits are mature that we can experience pain without acknowledging it. Thus pain can be laid down in a completely unconscious way, and most certainly there are no words to clarify or explain it. Can one imagine getting a patient to explain a gestational trauma? But he can describe a sensation of butterflies in the stomach, pressure on the chest and a churning sensation in the belly. We call it amorphous anxiety but these are part of the overall experience of fear and terror while we are being carried. Each is a fragment of a gestalt experience.
There was a study reported in the British journal, Nature. They noted that when the baby is under threat the amygdala signals to the prefrontal cortex triggering the expression of that fear in behavior. The cortex becomes the “decider.” What the investigators did was to train mice with a tone accompanied with a shock. When that was administered there was commensurate brain activity in the prefrontal area of the mice. But when the amygdala was surgically removed there was no longer any prefrontal activity; it could no longer signal fear to the top level. The same is true when we drug that structure or tranquilize it; it diminishes the force that mounts in the prefrontal area. We see from this research why so many of us have trouble sleeping; either falling asleep or staying asleep. And why some individuals cannot get into feeling. Lower level imprints voyaging or meandering upwards and forwards keep the person from traveling to a lower level of brain function. It literally jolts the person who has lain down for a few minutes trying to relax, into a hypervigilant state. There is too much going in that deeper level to permit entry. Lower level imprints are stimulating the frontal thinking/ruminating neurons to get busy. Thus in quieting the lower levels there is a sense of calm in the thinking area. A false sense, I might add. But the person reports feeling calmer. So much for subjective reports.
So when can a fetus feel pain? A better question might be: when can it signify pain? After the circuits are in place. Neuroscientist J.K.S. Anand explains this when he placed a needle/probe into a fetus (for amniocentesus). The fetus grimaced in pain and its stress hormone levels rose dramatically. The baby suffered; not only that but from our point of view, that suffering can be coded and registered in the memory system, thereafter lying in storage waiting its chance for connection. And this is what we in feeling therapy are about—connection.
There are some serious diseases out there that have been considered only in the domain of inheritance; muscular dystrophy is one of many. Perhaps the cures for these afflictions have been slow in coming because our emphasis has been on inherited factors rather than experience. If we don’t look at gestation as critical, our diagnoses are bound to be skewed.
There is a study by a Canadian group from the Douglas Mental Health University that found when child abuse exists there is a change in a gene (NR3C1) that affects how the child will deal with abuse. That gene was much lower in abuse victims who eventually took their lives. It would seem that childhood abuse had changed the structure of the gene so that it was less active. And these changes endured throughout their lives. It changed the way the whole stress apparatus functioned (the HPA). McGowan implies that the changes are stable and that they alter the gene’s activity leading to later illness and suicidal tendencies. When that gene is ineffective it cannot produce the kind of alerting, galvanizing chemicals that help one fight through things (glucocorticoid hormones). So the body behaves as though it were constantly under stress when there is none apparent. It is reacting to the imprint. What this research group believes is that mothers can affect the fate of their children even before they are born. The epigenetic changes could force the children to be depressed and suicidal later on. It will look like genetics but it will be more than that.
And to make matters worse, there is a study that indicates that a mother who is been stressed before she gets pregnant can also affect the life of her offspring. This was a rat study by the Israeli M. Lesham. Those rats who underwent stress before pregnancy had offspring who were hyperactive. The females displayed symptoms of anxiety and were generally more nervous. In general a nervous mother is not providing a good soil for having children. We then say she is just like her mother. It is inherited. No it is not. It is what that mother does to her baby just by who she is.
Every day there is new information and research on this subject. A new study by Alberto Bucay of the Research Center, Halabe and Darwich, Mexico, is now suggesting that when parents are happy it can change the germ cells (egg and sperm) that will affect the offspring. He writes in Bioscience Hypotheses, reported in Science News, that parent’s psychology and emotional state before conception can affect the child’s genes. For now this proposal is mostly polemical but it is intriguing. It is for all these reasons that epigenetics will soon be a very important area of study, something that did not exist when I was coming up in psychology.
 I discuss research into anise later on.
 Infant Behavior Development. July 29, 2006. Pgs. 445-455. “Prenatal Depression Effects on the Fetus and Newborn.”
 Healthday News. July 09
 Vivette Glover. Imperial College, London. Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. July 9, 2009
 See:“Stress During Pregnancy May Lower Baby’s IQ” British research. Reported in the Globe. Canada Zosia Bielski.
 “Neuro-developmental Changes of Fetal Pain.” Semin. Perinatol. 2007,
Oct 31,(5) 275-82.
 Nov. 18, 1999
 Science Daily. May 13, 2009. “Trauma Experienced by a Mother Even Before Pregnancy Will Influence Her Offspring’s Behavior.”
 “Can Happiness be Inherited?” May 14, 2009
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.