A Holocaust survivor walks inside the former concentration camp before a ceremony to mark the 69th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

A Holocaust survivor walks inside the former concentration camp before a ceremony to mark the 69th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

by Stephen Oryszczuk

Scientists in New York have shown that descendents of Holocaust survivors inherit a genetic memory of trauma, in a ground-breaking new study.

Results of the study, at Mount Sinai hospital, show that genetic changes stemming from horrific experiences can be passed on to children, indicating that a person’s life experience can affect subsequent generations.

Rachel Yehuda and her team of researchers looked at the families of 32 Jewish men and women who were either interned in Nazi death camps, witnessed or experienced torture, or who were forced to hide during the war.

Analysing the genes of their children, who are known to be more likely to suffer from stress, the team compared the results with Jewish families who were living outside of Europe during the war, and concluded that “the gene changes in the children could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents”.

In the scientific community, Yehuda’s work was being seen as the clearest indicator yet of transmitted trauma, in a new area of study called ‘epigenetic inheritance.’

“To our knowledge, this provides the first demonstration of transmission of pre-conception stress effects resulting in epigenetic changes in both the exposed parents and their offspring in humans,” said Yehuda.

Genes in DNA are the only way to transmit biological information between generations, but genes modified by the environment all the time, through chemical tags which switch them on and off. This new field of study shows how these tags could be passed through generations, meaning our environment could have impact on our children’s health.