Associate medical director, director of admissions at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, MA
Dr. Plakun has disclosed that he has no relevant financial or other interests in any commercial companies pertaining to this educational activity.
We know that childhood trauma can scar our patients psychologically—but new research suggests it might actually change their genes. The effect of the environment on genetics is referred to as epigenetics. In one study, monkeys who had been separated from their mothers were found to have widespread methylation of their DNA (Provencal N et al, J Neurosci 2012;32(44):15626–15642). The methylation occurred in virtually all cells, including in eggs and sperm, setting up the transmission of the impact of this kind of adversity to the next generation. When genes are methylated, they are rendered inactive, while other genes take their place—DNA kept in reserve, one might say—for traumatic situations. When speaking about these studies, Dr. Moshe Szyf of McGill University noted that demethylation of the methylated genes (which brings them back online) can occur later, during what he described as periods of “quiet reappraisal” when a monkey is alone and given a cue to remind it of the lost mother. Such periods of quiet reappraisal of loss seem analogous to what we do as therapists when we sit with patients in their grief, despair, and rage. In that sense, I believe that psychotherapists are clinical epigeneticists.