Epigenetics in Psychology: The Genetic Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma in African Americans

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It has long been suggested that environmental and experiential influencers impact the personality and the psychological development of a person. Recently, epigenetics has been interpolated into the discussion of multigenerational trauma as a significant influencer in the intergenerational transmission of trauma. This paper provides the introduction into the world epigenetic DNA modification, and its implications in understanding multigenerational trauma as it pertains to African Americans.

EPIGENETICS &

PSYCHOLOGY

ABSTRACT

It has long been suggested that environmental and

experiential influencers impact the personality and

the psychological development of a person.

Recently, epigenetics has been interpolated into

the discussion of multigenerational trauma as a

significant influencer in the intergenerational

transmission of trauma. This paper provides the

introduction into the world epigenetic DNA

modification, and its implications in

understanding multigenerational trauma as it

pertains to African Americans.

Rick Wallace, Ph.D.

The odyssey Project

The Genetic Intergenerational Transmission of

Trauma in African Americans


Epigenetics in Psychology: The Genetic Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma in African

Americans

My quest to discover the answers to some of the most enigmatic questions surrounding the

current and persistent reality of African Americans has carried me on an ethereal journey of

discovery, fascination, and frustration. Initially, it was my desire to discover why African

Americans could not make the necessary adjustments to their behavior that would result in the

elevation of the race as a collective. I needed to know what was at the root of the behavior of the

majority of African Americans, a behavior that has all but solidified our place at the bottom of

the socioeconomic ladder.

Early in my research, I decided to examine the idea that cognitive biases and cognitive

distortions were at the core of this counterproductive behavior; however, while cognitive biases

and cognitive distortions both play a role in the perpetuation of the current reality of the African

American experience, it is one of the primary causes of these cognitive interferences that has

consistently placed itself at the center of my work — trauma!

First of all, any time that the term trauma comes up concerning African Americans, it tends to

make a lot of people, specifically non-blacks, uncomfortable. And, when non-blacks become

uncomfortable, a large number of African Americans will go out of the way to ease that

discomfort, even if that means assaulting the messenger. Simply put, because of an overall

cognitive breakdown that has resulted from traumatic experiences, many blacks feel the need to

advocate for the comfort of Whites by demanding political correctness and the avoidance of any

discussion that will make the White collective uneasy. And for this reason, I must make myself

lucidly clear in expressing that I am unapologetically black, a man of African descent, and I love

my people. Right now the black race finds itself in last place in every measurable category of

human existence, including socioeconomic status, academia, political influence and more. There

is no time for political correctness, nor seeking any type of harmonious relationship with those

who have continuously sought our demise. I search for and disseminate truth — it is that simple!

In the process of attempting to understand the cognitive function of African Americans, I have

been consistently forced to engage the perpetual existence of trauma. Using the term “trauma”

when addressing the black experience in America is like lighting a powder keg of emotional

explosives. There are a large number of people, both White and Black, who suggest that the fact

that slavery has been abolished for more than 150 years means that it is time for blacks to forget

about the atrocities associated with slavery (DeGruy, 2005). Theoretically, we are six

generations removed from slavery, and that would seem to some to be plenty of time to have

adjusted to the freedom and liberty we were supposedly afforded upon our release. Those who

make this argument, choose to remain ignorant to the fact that the African American’s encounter

with mass trauma did not stop with the end of the Civil War. In fact, for most, especially the

African male, it became worse (DeGruy, 2005; Wallace R. , 2015; Yael Danieli, 1997).

Dr. Joy DeGruy has done an exceptional job in explaining nefarious and pestilential implications

associated with what she calls Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (DeGruy, 2005); however, for

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some blacks, it is virtually impossible to apply any level of validity to her work, despite the fact

that her work is respected in the fields of study of human behavior, such as psychology and

sociology. This inability to view Dr. DeGruy’s work as valid has nothing to do with its failure to

produce empirical and pragmatic evidence of a perpetual collective stress disorder among many

blacks. It is primarily due to the fact that she is black. One of the symptoms of this psychosis

among African Americans is to consider the academic, social, economic and political opinions of

fellow African American academicians as inferior to their white counterparts. Therefore, in order

for the opinion an African American to carry weight it must be accompanied by an endorsement

of their White counterparts.

The truth is that there is a wealth of empirical evidence that supports the intergenerational

transmission of trauma (DeGruy, 2005; Wallace R. , 2016; Wallace & Wallace, 2010; Weaver,

2015; Yael Danieli, 1997; Schmidt, Holsboer, & Rein, 2011; Kellermann, 2001; Kahane-

Nissenbaum, 2011), through both, psychological and genetic expression. So, when considering

the fact that African Americans have never been treated for the trauma associated with slavery,

the inference of genetic, psychological and philosophical transmission of trauma (Kahane-

Nissenbaum, 2011) is not only reasonable, it is the responsible response. Secondly, the statistical

significance 1 of the collective behavior among African Americans cannot be explained away as

coincidence (DeGruy, 2005; Wallace R. , 2015).

While the antisocial 2 behavior of blacks has historically been primarily studied as a pathological

occurrence, I personally believe that using the trauma model provides a more lucid paradigm

through which to examine the seemingly inexplicable behavior of African Americans (Wallace

R. , 2016; Jr., 2010).

While there are many elements that are associated with trauma-related behavior, the rapid rise of

epigenetics as a key influence in the biological/genetic transmission of trauma intrigued me.

While epigenetics is not a new field of scientific study, relatively speaking, its influence on the

intergenerational transmission of trauma, and the understanding of how this transmission takes

place is relatively new.

Epigenetics in Psychology

As far back and Freud, it has been suspected that the early experiences in life have the potential

to exert immensely profound and long-lasting influence on mental and physical health

throughout the course of life. However, the manner in which this dynamic of environmental

influence takes place has remained a mystery for the most part — at least until recently. 3 In an

effort to identify the primary causes of environmental influence on the physical and mental

1

Statistical significance is a term used in scientific research to explain a situational phenomenon in which the

prevalence is so great that it cannot be considered coincidental.

2

In behavioral science the term “antisocial” refers to behavior that is not conducive to the prosperity, advancement

and stability of a particular group. So, when this term is used in the discussion of African American behavior, it

refers to behavior that is counterproductive for African Americans in general.

3

Approximately, a little over two decades ago, the study of intergenerational trauma in first, second and third

generation Jewish Holocaust survivors examine genetic influence, and variations in gene expression was found to

play a role in this transmission.

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health of individuals has been most efficaciously assisted through the study of the epigenome —

a layer of genetic information associated with deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) that varies between

individuals, and having the capacity to be altered through various environments and experiences.

Researchers are now referring to the epigenome as the “missing piece” to the etiological puzzle

that explains the process in which environment and certain experience directly influence the

development of certain psychological disorders.

In order to develop a lucid perspicacity of the manner in which biology plays a role in learning,

memory, social behavior and emotion in humans, it will be necessary to first understand the

mechanisms in the initiation, maintenance and heritability of epigenetic states.

What we know, to this point, is that epigenetics influence mental health, behavior and physical

health in at least two ways — progressive genetic variation 4 and intergenerational transmission. 5

When considering the dynamics of epigenetics, it will be important to understand the inextricable

connection between mind and body, as expressed in psychosomatics. It is impossible to have any

significant changes in mind function, without a corresponding change in biological function, and

vice versa.

Additionally, epigenetics in the world of psychology creates the framework through which we

are able to gain an understanding of how gene expression is influenced by individual experience

and the environment in a manner that produces an individual difference in cognition, behavior,

personality and mental health. While there are some challenges to using certain epigenetic

approaches in psychology, there is definitely more promise, especially for those of us, including

myself, who prefer to use a trauma model (in lieu of a pathological model) to study antisocial

behavior in African Americans. It is my postulation that, with the exception of a small

percentage of cases, even behaviors that can be classified as pathological, have their origin in the

seed of the psychological and physical trauma associated with slavery, and the subsequent

traumata that followed via convict leasing, reconstruction, Jim Crow (Alexander, 2010), serial

forced displacement (Fullilove & Wallace, 2011), the assault on the black family nucleus

(Rhodes, 2016; Williams, 2015), mass incarceration and more.

Primary Learning Objectives

1. Define and explain the term “epigenetics” as it applies to the intergenerational

transmission of trauma

2. Name and briefly discuss relevant neural and developmental pathways that are regulated

by epigenetic factors

3. Develop an understanding of how the mis-regulation of epigenetic mechanisms can lead

to diseases states

4

Progressive genetic variation refers to the process of the variation in the genome based on environment and

experience of an individual over the course of their life. This process explains why identical twins, which are

genetically identical at birth, develop physical, emotional and psychological distinctions as they grow older.

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When discussing epigenetics, intergenerational transmission refers to the molecular process in which the

progenitors passes on certain epigenetic tags through the process of mitosis and meiosis during conception.

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4. Recognize the manner in which epigenetic machinery can be targeted by therapeutic

agents

Defining and Explaining Epigenetics

While the significant influence that epigenetics has on the transmission of trauma may still be in

its infancy stages, the term “epigenetics,” itself, has been around for quite some time.

Epigenetics has long been used to explain micro-variations in the genome over time. Where this

has been witnessed most prevalently in humans is with identical twins. Because identical twins

are genetically identical, they make good subjects when studying how environment and

experience can directly impact a person’s physical and psychological profile.

While epigenesis has been the focus point of a number of different studies surrounding

progressive genetic variation, the lack of efficient technology has limited what could be detected

and studied on a molecular level — until now.

In the worlds of psychology and biology, epigenetics refers to the totality of all molecular control

mechanisms programming the genome and respectively regulating gene activity (Schmidt,

Holsboer, & Rein, 2011). Simply stated, epigenetics refers to the heritable changes in gene

expression (active verses inactive) that does not involve changes to the underlying DNA

sequence, a change in phenotype without a change in genotype — subsequently impacting how

cells interpret or read genes. The existence of epigenetic tags that can be passed down through

procreation from either or both parents, or developed through certain experiences and the

exposure to certain environments, has the capacity to turn on/off certain genes that control

behaviors, perceptions, responses and more. In other words, epigenetic tags can turn on a gene

that makes a person more susceptible to developing clinical depression. It can also be responsible

for turning on genes that increase the risk of developing cancer. So, the gene expression

produced by epigenetic mutation can cause both, mental and physical health issues. Although, I

will not be elaborating on this in-depth, it is worth mentioning that the transmission of trauma

from the parent to the child epigenetically can function as a literal biological transmission of

trauma. Basically, through the passing on of certain epigenetic tags, the child can literally

experience certain memory-related responses to trauma that their parents experienced before they

were born. It can lead to unexplained feelings of depression and hopelessness (Kahane-

Nissenbaum, 2011).

As with any molecular activity, epigenetic programming can go wrong, and it is these epigenetic

defects that are reported as being influencers in the development of a variety of diseases. When it

comes to epigenetic, one of the major environmental factors that have the capacity to produce

epigenetic changes — constituting a primary pathogenetic mechanism — is stress. As far back as

Abram Kardiner (Kardiner, 1941), it has been suggested that stress induced trauma has both

physiological and psychological implications. Now, through the work of researchers and clinical

psychologists and psychiatrists, such as Bessel van Der Kolk (Kolk B. V., 2014; Kolk B. A.,

2001), we now know that stress induced mental disorders, such as Post Traumatic Dress

Disorder, is first initiated by a physiological response to a real or perceived threat — potentially

leaving molecular scarring referred to as epigenetic tags.

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A wealth of empirical data exists that shows the manner in which stress in known to contribute to

the pathogenesis of a variety of disorders, including the majority of psychiatric disorders, such as

PTSD and depression.

Progressive Genetic Variation

Early childhood is an important time for children, not only in the area of physical growth, but

also as it pertains to the mental development that is directly related to the changes in physiology,

anatomy and the chemistry of the nervous system that will have an immense influence on the

mental health of the child throughout their life. It is during this period that certain cognitive

functions, such as learning, problem solving, reasoning and the ability to effectively develop

relationships are developed. The development of the brain is considerably more rapid during

these early years, and slows as the child becomes older. This is why children who experience

traumatic experiences early in life struggle to recover to become prosocial in their behavior and

decision making.

For those who present philosophisms and enthymematic postulations that the current state of

African Americans is simply a result of poor decision making, I would suggest the use of a more

comprehensive approach to evaluating the situation. When one person performs an abstract act

that can be considered irrational and antisocial, and the incident can be considered and isolated

one, it may be within reason to suggest that the person simply made a poor decision. However, it

would be wise, even in an isolated incident, to attempt to discover the impetus that influenced the

bad decision. This is how I am able to help individuals who are struggling in the area of their

decision making. Conversely, when the behavior and decision making of a statistically

significant portion of any group is collectively behaving in an antisocial manner, and behaving in

manner that is antithetical to positive advancement, then one has to consider the cause. While the

counterproductive behavior of one isolated individual can be easily explained away, the

collective failure of an entire group cannot. We must be willing to discover the causality.

Brain development during the early childhood years is more rapid than at any other time in life,

with more than 700 neural connections being created each second. It is in this developmental

process that complex gene-environment interactions serve to increase the number of possible

contacts between neurons, as adult synaptic properties and excitability is honed.

The primary challenge of psychology has been the integration of findings from genetics and

environmental factors, including social, chemical and biological, as well as the quality of infantmother

attachments, into the study of personality and the development of certain mental

illnesses. Based on a couple of recent studies, common DNA sequence variation and rare

mutations only account for one to two percent of the total risk in the inheritance of mental

disorders and other personality traits (Dick, Riley, & Kendler, 2010; Gershon, Alley-Rodriguez,

& Liu, 2011). Additionally, studies attempting to examine how specific mechanisms and

conditions that are the result of DNA sequence variation influences brain development and

function are being confounded by highly complex cause and effect relationships (Petronis, 2010).

Explaining Epigenetic Transmission

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While epigenetics is, at minimum, dichotomous in its ability to influence the physiological and

psychological vulnerability to mental and physical disease, its ability to be transmitted via

conception is what has intrigued me the most. While genetic variations are constantly occurring

though life based on experiential and environmental influencers, it is the empirical data that

suggests that parents can pass genetic tags or genetic precursors on to their progeny, through

procreation, has massive implications in helping to explain the collective behavior of African

Americans.

But, how does this happen? With the understanding that different life experiences and exposure

to certain environments has the potential to cause genetic variations, creating what are known as

epigenetic tags, we have discovered that while most epigenetic tags are erased during the process

of mitosis and meiosis. 67 Nature, in its wonders, has provided a unique process, in meiosis,

assisted by spermatogenesis in the male progenitor and the menstruation cycle of the female

progenitor, that is designed to remove the existing epigenetic tags that are present with both

parents. However, research reveals that this process can leave behind some tags, especially when

there is an abundance of tags present initially (Dick, Riley, & Kendler, 2010; Gershon, Alley-

Rodriguez, & Liu, 2011; Schmidt, Holsboer, & Rein, 2011). It is also worth noting that the more

emphasized a tag may be based on the significance of the experience that created it, the more

likely it will be passed on.

Current Perspectives

Currently, a considerable amount of research is underway to develop treatments that target the

epigenome, and these studies will likely produced changes in the way that PTSD patients are

treated. It is important to understand that the studies surrounding epigenetics are relatively new,

and there is still a great deal to learn about this fascinating area of science. We are still searching

for valid proof that the epigenetic alterations that we are able to detect and measure are causal in

the development of phenotypic alterations after a stressful event; however, we can confirm that

researchers have observed phenotypical alterations and psychological responses to psycho-active

drugs.

We still have questions as to how epigenetics impact cognitive function and general perception,

which was one of my initial questions when I initiated my research more than two decades ago.

While we are still exploring the possibilities associated with understanding DNA modification,

there is a great deal of optimism associated with the idea of being able to execute molecular

control on gene expression.

6

Mitosis is a process in which the body repairs and replenishes itself on a cellular level. During this process, one

cell divides, producing two new cells that are not only identical to one another, but they both are identical to the

original cell that produced them.

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Meiosis is a process that allows for genetic integration. In other words, procreation takes place when the 23

chromosomes from the male spermatozoa and 23 chromosomes from the female ovum combine to form the 46

chromosomes of a new human life.

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While we work through this process of discovering, categorizing and analyzing the function of

epigenetics in psychology, we can at least, admit that there is more to the behavior of the black

collective than simply poor decision making.

By

Dr. Rick Wallace, Ph.D.

Other Resources by Dr. Rick Wallace include:

The Mis-education of Black Youth in America

The Invisible Father: Reversing the Curse of a Fatherless Generation

When Your House is Not a Home

Renewing Your Mind

Visit The Odyssey Project Site Here

The Blueprint 1.0

Special Education Position Paper

Racial Trauma & African Americans

Over the past 20 years, Dr. Wallace has invested more than

48,000 hours of research into understanding the scientific

implications of white supremacy and how they have directly

impacted African Americans in all nine areas of human

activity, which include economics, education, entertainment,

labor, law, politics, religion, sex and war. He has spent a

substantial amount of time attempting to answer the question

of why blacks seem incapable of overcoming the barrier of

racism despite the fact that the solution has been placed

before them.

The preponderance of the evidence that Dr. Wallace has

examined has provided him with a lucid perspicacity of the complex dynamic at play — a

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dynamic that includes psychological, sociological, economic and political oppression

that is executed through multitudinous pernicious machinations. He has used this

information to develop what he calls The Black Community Empowerment Blueprint

1.0. This blueprint is a comprehensive strategy that addresses every area of concern for

the black collective in great detail. Dr. Wallace has also disseminated his findings in a

number of literary works, including his latest book, The Mis-education of Black Youth in

America.

Currently, Dr. Wallace is moving into the second phase of his research, transitioning

from inductive research to deductive research for the purpose of advancing and

introducing certain scientific theories associated with the African American experience.

To this date, Dr. Wallace’s research has proven to be immensely valuable, as he develops

social programs to counter external influences, lectures to African Americans across the

nation and develops a comprehensive blueprint capable of facilitating

the complete elevation and empowerment of African Americans, as well as the complete

diaspora in time, but the cost of research can be quite exorbitant, especially when he is

investing between 55-85 hours per week.

To this point, all funding has been covered by Dr. Wallace himself. He is currently

seeking research funding, but due to the specific focus of his research, traditional

channels, such as government, academic and private grants are not an option. While he

currently has a couple interested sponsors, both of them are non-blacks, which speaks

volumes. While Dr. Wallace has committed to proceeding at all cost, the support of the

community and people he is fighting for will prove highly beneficial in multitudinous

ways.

To contribute to his work through The Odyssey Project, Click here!

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York: The New Press.

DeGruy, J. (2005). Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and

Healing. Portland, OR: Uptone Press.

Dick, D. M., Riley, B., & Kendler, K. (2010). Nature and Nurture in Neuropsychiatric Genetics:

Where do We Stand? Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 7-23.

Fullilove, M. T., & Wallace, R. (2011). Serial Forced Displacement in American Cities 19-1916-

2010. Journal of Urban Health: Bulleton of the New York Academy of Medicine, Vol. 88,

No. 3, 381-382.

Gershon, E. S., Alley-Rodriguez, N., & Liu, C. (2011). After GWAS: Searching for Genetic Risk

for Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 253-256.

Jr., M. H. (2010). The Impact of Racial Trauma on African Americans. The Heinz Endowments.

Kahane-Nissenbaum, M. C. (2011). Exploring Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma in

Third Generation Holocaust Survivors. University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons.

Kardiner, A. (1941). The Traumatic Neurosis of War. New York: Hoeber.

Kellermann, N. P. (2001). Transmission of Holocaust Trauma - An Integrative View. Israel

Journal of Psychiatry, 256-267.

Kolk, B. A. (2001). Exploring the Nature of Traumatic Memory: Combining Clinical Knowledge

with Laboratory Methods. Trauma and Cognitive Science Haworth Press, Inc.

Kolk, B. V. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score. New York: Penguin Publishers.

Petronis, A. (2010). Epigenetics as a Unifying Principle in the Aetiology of Complex Traits and

Diseases. Nature, 721-727.

Rhodes, H. A. (2016). The African-American Family in Crisis. Yale-New Haven Teachers

Institute, 1.

Schmidt, U., Holsboer, F., & Rein, T. (2011). Epigenetics Aspects of Post Traumatic Stress

Disorder. Max Planck Institute of Psychology.

Wallace, R. (1988). A Synergism of Plagues, Planned Shrinkage, Contagious Housing

Destruction, and Aids in the Bronx. New York: Environ Res.

Wallace, R. (2015). The Miseducation of Black Youth in America: The Final Move on the Grand

Chessboard. Etteloc Publishing.

Wallace, R. (2016). Racial Trauma & African Americans. The Odyssey Project.

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Wallace, R., & Wallace, D. (2010). Gene Expression and Its Discontents: The Social Production

of Chronic Disease. New York, NY: Springer.

Walter Howard Smith, J. (2010). The Impact of Racial Trauma on African Americans. The Heinz

Endowments.

Weaver, I. (2015). Epigenetics in Pyschology. The NOBA Project.

Williams, H. A. (2015). How Slavery Affeced African American Families. National Humanities

Center University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, 1.

Yael Danieli, P. (1997). International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma. The

National Center for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, 1.

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