Thursday, October 22, 2015
Epigenetics and Primal Therapy: The Cure for Neurosis (Part 2/20)
Heredity Turned on its Head
Let’s make sure we understand this notion of epigenetics because in the coming years it will likely be one of most important areas of scientific research. As I’ve mentioned, one reason for its preeminence is that many of the serious diseases we think are genetic are actually epigenetic and, therefore, environmentally caused, and possibly treatable. That is now an established fact in human development. However, early discoveries in the field a short decade ago were so startling that they even surprised the scientific world.
The power of epigenetics was demonstrated early on in an experiment at Duke University. That study showed that when female mice were fed a diet rich in methyl it completely altered the fur pigment of the offspring; in other words, it acted like a genetic inheritance when it was not. It was the result of experience, something totally unexpected in the field of genetics until then. As a result of this study, two leading scientists from Canada, Michael Meaney and Moshe Szyf, thought: if that is true why shouldn’t it be true of other experiences such as bad mothering or negligent parenting? (3) Well,it was,and epigenetic research exploded. Think of that: traumatic events in very early childhood leave a mark or tag on a gene that affects us just about forever. That is what I refer to as the imprint, the psychological stamp engraved by harmful events during gestation and early infancy, and burned into the system for life. We now understand that the imprint is aided and abetted by the process of methylation, in which the chemical methyl group is added to the genome to restrict its expression. In other words, the imprint is laid down, in part, by a change in the cell, as certain chemical reactions are taking place — hydrogen removal, methyl infusion, and so on. Methylation leaves a heritable imprint, one that can be passed down even from grandparents to their grandchildren, as research has shown. So what we always thought was genetic may well be the result of very early experience diverting the genetic legacy. In short, the experiences of our forbearers can endure and be passed down the epigenetic chain – the inheritance of acquired characteristics. This is something science thought impossible not long ago.
In another key experiment, the McGill genetics researchers compared two groups of rats: one group consisted of the offspring of normal mothers who frequently licked their babies but had subjected the offspring to stress during pregnancy, with a second group of pups who were also under stress but experienced no licking (Meaney, Aitken, Bodnoff, Iny, & Sapolsky, 1985). Not surprisingly, those babies who were heavily licked turned out to be the most normal and well adjusted. What is a surprise, however, is how much womb-life counts; what the scientists found is that the right amount of licking and grooming early on, left offspring less responsive to stress hormones as adults. It is what we all know: that early love makes us stronger and less anxious. But it turns out that if the mothers were licked and groomed early on in their lives, that experience could be passed on too; the stress hormone genes of their offspring could be modified by the methyl group (and also other chemicals) in a beneficial way. Good history in the mother, good childhood for the children. The more loving by the mother, the less methylation in the child. As we will see shortly, loving in the womb means receiving proper nutrients, being calm and not furiously running here and there, avoiding dangerous or unhealthy situations. I know of someone who did extreme heat/massage therapy while pregnant, never realizing the possible harm to the baby.
Almost every animal form that is loved and licked has grown up pretty healthy with no serious disease; and in my therapeutic experience, those children who had bad and traumatic births with unhealthy gestations are the ones who suffer the most as adults. Too often, catastrophic early life equals catastrophic disease later in life.
To make sure that these changes in the rat pups resulted from experience and not heredity, the researchers let normally stable rat pups raised by attentive mothers be raised by neurotic negligent mothers. And the result was still the same – unstressed babies. These babies had birth mothers who had normal amounts of methylation in their genomes. Thus rats raised by loving mothers could pass it onto offspring even when the adopted mother was not loving. The genes for stress hormone output had minimal methylation; in other words love was passed down the genetic chain. So normal babies raised by negligent and inattentive mothers still had low methyl levels in their hippocampus. The babies started life one leg up; a good start in life despite a bad childhood.
For animal mothers, licking is tantamount to hugging and caressing in humans. And, just as we see in the rats, a woman who is unhappy or depressed while carrying can influence that child for a lifetime, even if she later normalizes and feels better. I believe that changes in the genes, methylation and acetylation, must occur very early as the whole neuronal system is evolving. So before we can state what causes depression or anxiety, we need to observe the early epigenetics at work. Again, pups born to bad mothers but reared by loving mothers still seemed to be normal and relatively un-methylated.
Here is one more reason this research is important: the scientists found that unloving mothers of rodents caused methylation of the estrogen receptors in female offspring. Then, when they had offspring of their own, the offspring were deficient in estrogen, which made them less attentive and loving to their own babies. We as yet do not know how many key chemical processes can be affected by lack of early love, and more, we have no idea how many hormones are changed in neurotic (heavily methylated) mothers, and how that affects myriad adult behaviors.
Nowadays, there seem to be constant breakthroughs in epigenetics research. As I stated at the start, researchers have established that epigenetics is at work not just in animals but among humans as well. In the aforementioned study of Holocaust survivors, published in August in Biological Psychiatry, an international team of researchers led by Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, examined the genes of 32 Jewish subjects who had suffered some level of trauma during World War II. They were either held in concentration camps, tortured or forced into hiding. Researchers also examined the genes of 22 adult children of these traumatized survivors. The results were then compared with a control group of Jewish families (eight parents and nine offspring) who were living outside of Europe during the war.
Investigators focused on a specific gene, FKBP5, which is known to
regulate the stress hormone system and determines how well a person handles
stress, according to Elisabeth Binder, director at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, who directed the molecular analyses. The study found that the war trauma had altered the methylation levels of a specific site within that gene (bin 3/site 6) in both the Holocaust survivors and their offspring. The methylation levels at that site were higher in Holocaust survivors compared to the control subjects. In the survivors’ adult offspring, paradoxically, the methylation levels at that same site were lower, compared to controls. Still, researchers determined that “methylation levels for exposed parents and their offspring were significantly correlated.”
The research has quickly led to a practical, real-world application. In August, around the same time the study was released, London’s Guardian newspaper reported that Jewish activists in Scotland had launched an effort to help the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors suffering from depression, anxiety, addiction and eating disorders. The article makes note of epigenetics studies that document “the intergenerational effects of the Holocaust” by showing that “the atrocities altered the DNA of victims’ descendants.” Armed with that knowledge, activists called for “a mental health provision to treat inherited trauma.” (4)
Although critics say the number of subjects in this study is too small – reflecting the small number of Holocaust survivors still alive – the connection is clear. "The gene changes in the children did not appear to be mediated by adversity experienced during their own childhood but could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents," said Yehuda, in a statement from the Max Planck Institute (5). "Environmental influences such as stress, smoking or diet can affect the genes of our children.”
In other words, even before a baby is conceived, his genetic destiny is being determined, at least in part, by the life experiences of his parents, not just their existing genetic code. That is epigenetics in action.
(3) Hoag, H. (2011, Summer). Are your genes your destiny? (Not if your mom has anything to say about it). Retrieved from http://publications.mcgill.ca/mcgillnews/2011/06/01/are-your-genes-your-destiny-not-if- your-mom-has-anything-to-say-about-it/
(4) West, J. (2015, August 3). Holocaust survivors' grandchildren call for action over inherited trauma. The Guardian.
(5) Holocaust survivors pass on trauma to their children’s genes. (2015, August 25). Retrieved from http://www.mpg.de/9375728/holocaust-trauma-epigenetics
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.