Trauma is Intergenerational

Animal and human studies show trauma is passed from mother to fetus.  These early memories of trauma are implicit or non-conscious.  We access them through the body memory of sensation in Somatic Experiencing.  Other studies show that access the memory whether implicit or explicit is a slightly unstable event where learning  and change in the nervous system can happen.


Summary posted in the New England Journal, Journal Watch.


Mothers’ Fear Is Transmitted to Offspring: An Animal Study
August 13, 2014
Mothers’ Fear Is Transmitted to Offspring: An Animal Study
Barbara Geller, MD reviewing Debiec J and Sullivan RM. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2014 Jul 28.
Infants exposed to mothers conditioned to fear a peppermint odor developed an aversion to the odor.

Intuitively, it seems unlikely that infants have sufficient cognitive capacity to incorporate a mother’s fears from environmental cues. To test this possibility, researchers conducted fear-conditioning experiments in female rats and young pups.

Before breeding, rats either were or were not conditioned to a foot shock (unconditioned stimulus [US]) paired with peppermint odor (conditioned stimulus [CS]). At about age 1 week, pups and mothers were exposed or not exposed to the CS. CS-exposed pups of fear-conditioned mothers showed aversion to the peppermint odor, unlike CS-exposed pups of control mothers and nonexposed pups of fear-conditioned mothers. To test whether behaviors of fear-conditioned mothers might affect results, researchers tested aversion in pups exposed to surrogate mothers with or without fear conditioning or to the odor of fear-conditioned mothers; the biological odor and surrogate fear conditioning produced the same aversion in CS-exposed pups. Pups with CS aversion had elevated stress indicators, including increased corticosterone and postmortem elevated amygdala activity, which were prevented with corticosterone antagonists or amygdala inhibition.


These data are consistent with a human study that found mothers’ preferences for orange juice altered infants’ willingness to drink the beverage (Am J Orthopsychiatry, 1945; 15:76). Practitioners can educate pregnant women and new parents that, as uncanny as it may seem, their babies might perceive and incorporate their fears.

For society, prejudicial fears may be “transmitted” to babies. In this regard, a recent animal study confirmed the common observation that early life traumas are not remembered; nevertheless, these traumas altered adult glucocorticoid and amygdala pathways (Biol Psychiatry 2014; 76:306). Analogously, people may not recall the infant experiences that shape their fears.

Editor Disclosures at Time of Publication

Debiec J and Sullivan RM.Intergenerational transmission of emotional trauma through amygdala-dependent mother-to-infant transfer of specific fear. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2014 Jul 28; [e-pub ahead of print]. (
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