Can trauma be passed down through DNA?



It’s well known that traumatic experiences can have lifelong impacts on health and well-being. But it’s possible that those effects can last longer than a single lifetime.  A new study lead by AIS Professor Ripan Malhi asks whether the effects of trauma have been passed down genetically in Tlingit families in Hoonah, Alaska.

Much of the history is familiar to rural Alaska Native communities anywhere in the state: children taken from their families and sent to boarding schools, language suppressed. But the Tlingit community of Hoonah has also experienced unique traumas, such as a fire that destroyed much of the town in 1944.

“This major fire that occurred there in the in the ’40s. And Bureau of Indian Affairs was very much involved in our lives, and at the time, they wouldn’t allow them to rebuild clan houses,” Worl said.

Rosita Worl is the president of the Juneau-based Sealaska Heritage Institute. She’s also an anthropologist. Some of her first work looked at the social and cultural impacts of historical trauma in Alaska Native communities.

“And then now, how many years later, to find out that these changes, these impacts, could change our very physiological being,” Worl said.

Trauma might even affect our DNA, our most basic stuff. And, if that’s the case, those changes could be passed down through families, impacting people generations removed from traumatic events.

It’s a young field of research, and SHI is part of it. The non-profit just launched a study to see if residents and descendants of Hoonah have experienced any genetic changes because of that trauma.

Principal investigator Ripan Malhi is a molecular anthropologist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Malhi and his team explain it like this: Your DNA is fixed. It’s like a sheet of music; all the notes are already printed on the page. Those are your genes. But as in music, it’s all about expression.

“It’s the musician that can change how the music is played, or you can stress some notes really loudly or play other notes really softly,” Malhi said. “And so that’s kind of like gene expression that changes the level of how the genes are expressed, even though the notes are the same.”

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