Transgenerational or intergenerational trauma, the transmission of trauma experiences across generations, has gathered growing interest over the last several years. While the psychological and sociological aspects have been studied, recent attention has turned toward the intricate role of epigenetics.

Epigenetics refers to changes in gene expression that do not involve alterations in the DNA sequence itself. Instead, these changes are influenced by environmental factors, including experiences of trauma. Researchers and experts posit that trauma can leave molecular marks on DNA, modifying gene expression patterns that can be passed down to subsequent generations.

Molecular Imprints of Trauma

Studies on animal models have provided evidence for the transmission of trauma-induced epigenetic changes across generations. For instance, research on rodents subjected to stressors like maternal separation or predator odor exposure has shown alterations in gene expression in subsequent generations. These changes are often associated with behavioral and physiological traits resembling those observed in the traumatized ancestors.

Human Studies: Bridging the Gap

While animal studies lay the groundwork, human research is crucial for understanding the relevance of epigenetic mechanisms in intergenerational trauma. Several studies have explored this link, particularly among populations with a history of collective trauma, such as Holocaust survivors and their descendants, as well as individuals affected by historical racial discrimination and slavery.

A landmark study by Yehuda et al. (2016) found evidence of epigenetic alterations in genes associated with stress response in Holocaust survivors and their offspring. Similarly, studies on descendants of individuals exposed to famine during pregnancy have revealed changes in DNA methylation patterns, suggesting intergenerational transmission of epigenetic marks.

Mechanisms Underlying Transmission

Several mechanisms have been proposed to explain how epigenetic changes induced by trauma can be inherited. One hypothesis involves the transmission of small RNA molecules, such as microRNAs, via sperm and oocytes, which can influence gene expression in the offspring. Another mechanism involves epigenetic modifications, such as DNA methylation, that can persist across generations.

Implications for Intervention and Prevention

Understanding the role of epigenetics in intergenerational trauma has profound implications for intervention and prevention strategies. By targeting epigenetic mechanisms, interventions aimed at breaking the cycle of transgenerational trauma could potentially mitigate its impact on future generations. Moreover, this knowledge underscores the importance of addressing trauma not only at an individual level but also within families and communities.


Epigenetics offers a compelling framework for understanding the transmission of trauma across generations. Evidence from both animal and human studies suggests that experiences of trauma can leave lasting molecular imprints that shape gene expression patterns in offspring. While the field is still evolving, the insights gleaned thus far highlight the complex interplay between environmental influences and genetic inheritance in shaping our biological responses to adversity. By unraveling the epigenetic mechanisms underlying intergenerational trauma, we pave the way for innovative approaches to healing and resilience across generations.