Genetic Transmission of PTSD?

originally posted 2008-05-27 14:10:49 -- interesting developments to watch -- bumped, cho

What's new here is the researcher's Ken O'Brien has graciously returned to answer the comments, scroll down them to read about interesting developments in the genetics of PTSD. -- cho

I don't know yet what quite to make of this and will reserve judgment until I read the whole study when it is presented but this has me gobsmacked! I present this for your viewing pleasure. From the Aussies:

"QUT researcher Ken O'Brien will present his findings[tonight] that elements of PTSD are passed genetically to children of Vietnam veterans.
``It's about looking at PTSD and how it is handed down through the generations and becomes called ADHD, Aspergers and autism,'' Mr O'Brien said."

It reminds me of what Carl Jung called the "collective unconscious"--that events and our reactions to them can be transmitted through space and time and can seem to have a genetic expression in behavior. The classic case is of the female primates on a completely isolated island who learned to use tools in a very particular way (using a stick to poke ants out of a hole in a log and to eat them off the stick)--at nearly the same time another tribe's females learned to do the very same action on an island distant from the other--an action that had never been before observed in either tribe of primates. There was absolutely no contact between these two tribes of primates and the explanation has been a mystery for years.

I know that I am thinking "small" but I am not sure how the neuronal traces and limbic system arousal of PTSD could alter DNA expression into a disorder on the autism spectrum. Although growing up in a PTSD afflicted household would certainly have its deleterious effects, these findings alluded to above are certainly quite a radical departure and are compelling! Any of you geneticists out there, please weigh in! Stay tuned...

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Isn't this interesting!

I vaguely know about similar studies about the nature / nurture restructuring the genetic makeup of children of alcoholics, who then may inherent the dna that makes them susceptible to alcohol addiction. But I thought the research was still out.

Keep us posted, DEfuning.

I have read that what is transmitted has to do with the mechanism for addiction. That is some people take an addictive substance but do not get easily addicted while for others the reverse is true. This is a genetic succeptibility that I believe runs in my own family since my maternal great uncle and my maternal uncle both were alcoholics.

On the other hand the addiction of mothers during pregnancy can lead to birth defects and other problems, as can smoking or taking certain drugs prescribed for medical reasons. Why wouldn't being under extreme stress for a prolonged period have an effect on the mother's metabolism that could be transmitted.

I recently read something interesting about the Y chromosome which is smaller than the X and creates certain problems for men. It seems to be more vulnerable to mutation and it does not have access to the transfer of genetic material to repair genetic damage, which is a possibiltiy for females who carry two X chromosomes and can interchange material from them.


Are the authors trying to say PTSD is always present in DNA but relies on a trigger to activate it?

I've spent the day in a psychopharmacology training session and may have gotten a little more insight but still don't truly understand the mechanism. The doc I trained with today from UNC Chapel Hill said that they are finding that neurotransmitter changes in the synaptic space actually make structural changes in the DNA of the receiving neuronal cell body! How's that for serendipity for answering a question I just posed to the Universe last night?! He said that the freaking DNA changes as the neurotransmitters are either blocked or boosted in the synaptic space, altering to adapt to the changed chemical mix.

Sadly, the information I got on the treatment of PTSD was not so exciting--mainly focusing on SSRI's (serotonin selective reuptake inhibitors) ,propananol, and maybe a little benzo's to take off the edge. I anxiously await the report from the Aussies--still no word.

Even at the micro-cellular level, humans evolve to suit the demands of their environment. "We are what we eat" We are also what we drink, breathe and feel. One of the primary reasons Humans are currently at the top of the evolutionary ladder is that we are, in our entirity, products of our environment. Our ability to rapidly adapt to our environment to survive puts us on that top rung.

Current Medical perspectives are not accepting the complete picture of biogenetics, epigenetics as well as social and cultural changes. The methods of diagnosis and treatment have not kept pace with these factors, and, consequently, are no longer valid.

Consider this: if the body responds to environmental changes, is not an artificially produced drug (environmental influence) going to alter the body's genetic response? Yes. Headache tablets, for example, do not CURE a headache. They simply mask the symptoms until the brain's bioreceptors find equilibrium with its own natural balance of hormones. That is why the packet states, "If symptoms persist, see your doctor", and you only take two every four hours. However, prolonge exposure (abuse) prompts a biological response to an environmental alteration at a genetic level...hence evolution. This is to ensure the next generation will not just survive, put proliferate under these conditions. The gene itself cannot determine if the drug (such as SSRIs) is a laboratory or naturally created one, it just responds.

SSRIs have their place in the management and immediate treatment of symptoms. But they should not be exploited as a supposed "cure". Short term therapy only, until we can introduce strategies to introduce natural environmental changes.

This cutting edge research specifically targets candidate genes for expression and transmission of many psychological conditions....

When there is a mismatch between a person and their environment (society) they are labeled as problematic or disabled. Traditional medicine tries to force a person to change (through drugs etc) to suit their environment. What is needed is a new approach that considers how to alter the environment to suit the person, so these genetic or physical or psychological changes can be utilised to the benefit of both person and the society in which they live. For example a common symptom of PTSD is hypervigilance. This quality is considered detrimental by medical perspectives, yet, in the role of Workplace Health and Safety Officer hypervigilance is an essential skill. Put the person in the right environment, not force the person to suit their current environment. The status quo must also evolve. This is the challenge for most mental health practitioners.



It's the hypervigilance part for me that exacts the greatest toil... if I could have hypervigilance without the accompanying stress... that would be one thing.

On the other hand, two things have helped me (and the good lord knows what I experience is nothing like what our returning troops must live with). One, slow accommodation to triggers, reducing their ability to send me into panic'd states. And two, life-style changes that removed me from an over-abundance of stimuli. I needed less opportunities to be hyper vigilant rather than be in an environment where that was part of the job.

Look, I am so on the same page. I have PTSD (ironic that) and hypervigilance can be a problematic.

However, the problem lies not with the individual (as the medical model would have you accept) but with the society in which the individual interacts. When society becomes accepting of these differences and accommodates the inherent skills and qualities of those who posess them, they can be fully utilised. That way those with hypervigilance and other symptoms of PTSD will become social assets, instead of social liabilities....have you looked at my website yet? It should help in many ways.

And you have done just what I am preaching. By finding an environment conducive to reducing the negative effects of the symptoms you are minimising the opportunity for those negative effects to be passed on (via genetics or parenting styles) to the next generation. This may also extend outside the immediate family. My hat off to you for being innovative in your self-management.

I think he supplies the therapy you are looking for.

I am also working on a book along these lines. I believe, like Eduardo, that PTSD is not a "syndrome" but an altered spiritual state. Eduardo aptly renames PTSD "soul wounding" and works with clients to develop rituals to bring them back into proper relations with the ancestors and spirits. I have worked with parents of murdered children, creating community-built structures with them. We tell our stories while building to help to bring us all back into relationship with the community and one another. The act of building together welcomes survivors back into the community which is rebuilt around them in their new role.

When somebody suffers war or genocide, their community and all their expected cultural cues triggering daily behavior are lost. It is like the amputation of a part of the soul. It must be regenerated through action (like building) or through personally meaningful ritual in concert with others.

In a way yes, but the triggers for the genetic transmission and expression of PTSD is as complex and complicated as the condition itself. There are many marker genes (or more appropriately, protein segments) that we are monitoring, but so far results are inconclusive.

For more information you can log onto my website (provided elsewhere on this site) or go to the Australian Department of Veterans Affairs website ( and click on the National Study into Health and Wellbeing of Vietnam Veterans.



In a word...yes.

We all carry the protein responsible for schizophrenia, yet not all of us display its symptoms...why? Because that protein has not been activated in those who don't display it. It, like many gene segments, lays 'dormant' until it recieves a 'signal' to wake up and express itself upon other genes, thereby changing the whole organism (person).

Indeed we all carry the gene segment for every cancer and ailment known to medicine, yet we don't all have/get all of them. If your environment abuses you, (or you enable it to - such as eating, breathing, drinking, smoking in bioligical detriment) then your body will adapt to these changes.

The tsunami of corticotropic hormones released during the significant psychological trauma produces massive changes to the brain and body on an organism-wide (whole-of-person) basis. Specific structures in the brain shrink and alter in volume and function. This occurs within 1/1000 of a second immediatly after the event. PTSD is considered by mental health mandates (such as the DSM) as a single 'event-related condition'. The problem here arises when people present with consequences of exposure to prolonged, multiple traumatic experiences (such as those of the Vietnam war over 13 months per person, on average). The body gets the message to surive in this hostile environment it must make rapid, organism-wide changes, or die. 'Survival of the species' mechanisms kick in and ensure that the next generation are also well-equipt with the psychological, neurological and physical survival requirements in the same hostile environment as their parents. This is genetic transferrence = evolution. However, the soldier is returned home to thier passive, non-hostile environment and have brought these adaptations with them...insidiously lurking beneath the DNA. Thus any response that would have ensured survival in the environment in which it was created, is deemed inappropriate, problematic and even disabling in a foreign environment. Yet these adaptiations to this hostile environment are emerging in subsequent generations and, because these offspring have no direct experience of the original trauma, they cannot be diagnosed with the same condition as their forefathers. So we give them labels that describe the symptoms but not the condition, nor its origins. Thus we have created, through neglect or ignorance or both, our own problematic situation.


Is there a way to un-trigger or reverse the process? Can genes be coaxed to evolve further but this time away from PTSD?

A sort of re-healing though that's probably not the correct or best way to describe it.

The jury is still out on that one, but let me highlight some evidence that can assist you in reaching your own verdict.

The body regenerates every single cell in its entirety every 6- 7 years (some more frequently). This means that at some point within this time frame, each cell is looking for the template for instructions on making a new one to replace it. If the template is varied in even the smallest way, then the new replacement cell will be likewise different. It's like a piano concerto that you know well. You hear one note off key. What do you remember most about the entire performance? That one note out of place.

The DNA are very similar. Base letter pairs (G-C and T-A) are a precise set of ingredients on how to make a protein that causes specific genetic expressions. They also contain the complex instructions on when, where and what. Many proteins are several thousand base pairs long. If just one base pair is altered then this changes a lot of things. The set of ingredients on how to make it is changed, along with the instructions on when to make it, when to release it, where it is meant to go, and what it is meant to do when it gets there.

So, if you have a specific condition and you understand the mechanics of its manifestation, you can minimise or even eliminate it (and its negative effects) within one, two or three cycles of cellular regeneration.

Of course this is not the case for all conditions, particularly those with anatomical bases (such as spina bifida or Altzheimer's). But alterations in the environment can alter the severity of negative effects as experienced by the person.

Hope this makes sense.


So in theory, yes. But the amount of time necessary to re-untrigger is too long so that the changes may have already been passed on.

Fascinating topic and discussion, thank you.

Thank you for your comments and they are very good questions indeed.

I have been researching genetics of mental conditions for over 23 years.

Feel free to ask any questions.

You can view more in detail at or email me at

entitled, "Native American Post--Colonial Psychology." It is one of my favorite books. Influenced by Elie Weisel and his work with children of holocaust victims, Eduardo decided to look at the impacts of intergenerational trauma on Native Americans. He writes the same book in two lingos: his first iteration discusses the manner in which PTSD is passed from one generation to the next; his second iteration speaks of ways to heal the damaged spirits lingering in the soil and air so they can move on to the next world. He writes about the need for relevant ritual as a means of healing multi-generational trauma. It is a brilliant beautiful book.

He does not worry much about genetics, but his spiritual observations complement this research.

Eduardo often says he thinks "Colonialism" should be a diagnosis in the DSM. Maybe the PTSD of the Vietnam vets is another bit of evidence that he is correct.

here since it directly references this discussion... Of Quantum Physics and PTSD: The Dots are Alreadyer Connected.