DNA holds the key to many aspects of human life. However, the nature versus nurture debate continues within the behavioral health field. Recent research indicates that fear responses to past trauma might be inherited through chemical changes in genetic material. National Face Your Fears Day which occurred on Oct. 13, 2015 provided a chance to examine the biological and psychological causes of specific phobias and how the two are linked.
The exact causes of phobias are unknown, though scientists believe that many result from past traumatic experiences the individual encountered with the phobic stimulus. Fredric Neuman, M.D., of White Plains Hospital in New York has treated different generations within the same family struggling with similar phobias. He attributes this to the notion that phobias are learned behaviors, meaning that a father with a strong fear of planes will instill this same fear in his child. However, Dr. Neuman also suggests that individuals are born with varying levels of reactivity, higher levels of which make them more vulnerable to phobias and high anxiety.
A 2013 study conducted by scientists at Emory University’s School of Medicine found that fear responses can be inherited in mice. The parent mice were given mild electric shocks when exposed to the scent of cherry blossoms, then given time to breed. The offspring mice exhibited strong fear responses when exposed to the same smell, though they had never had a traumatic experience related to the fragrance. The scientists found that there was an actual change in the DNA of the offspring on the gene used to process smell. This suggests phobias might be an inherited defense mechanism passed down to warn new generations about potential dangers.
Researchers believe this can be applicable to other anxiety-related mental health disorders, beginning to provide an explanation for otherwise irrational or inexplicable feelings and behaviors. Professor Marcus Pembrey of University College London explains, “It addresses constitutional fearfulness that is highly relevant to phobias, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders, plus the controversial subject of transmission of the ‘memory’ of ancestral experience down the generations.” These findings are groundbreaking in the field of behavioral health, encouraging scientists to reexamine the nature versus nurture debate from a new perspective.
If you or a loved one is struggling with fear-related anxiety or specific phobias, help is available. Call the California Mental Health Helpline today to speak with a professional.