A painful legacy

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Science  19 Jul 2019:
Vol. 365, Issue 6450, pp. 212-215
DOI: 10.1126/science.365.6450.212

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In mice and people, researchers are probing a disturbing possibility: that emotional trauma triggers subtle biological alterations that affected adults might pass on to their own offspring, with consequences for their behavior and health. That idea would have been laughed at 20 years ago. But today the hypothesis that physical stresses might alter the cells and behavior of a person's children and grandchildren has become widely accepted. In animals, exposure to stress, cold, or high-fat diets has been shown to trigger metabolic changes in later generations. And small studies in humans exposed to traumatic conditions—among them the children of Holocaust survivors—suggest subtle biological and health changes in their children. Now researchers are studying mice to pin down just how trauma might affect an individual's biological legacy.

  • * Andrew Curry is a journalist in Berlin.

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