Maybe their fears haunt them from generations past
Well, that’s the word from this Nature story:
Ressler and his colleague Brian Dias opted to study epigenetic inheritance in laboratory mice trained to fear the smell of acetophenone, a chemical the scent of which has been compared to those of cherries and almonds. He and Dias wafted the scent around a small chamber, while giving small electric shocks to male mice. The animals eventually learned to associate the scent with pain, shuddering in the presence of acetophenone even without a shock.
This reaction was passed on to their pups, Dias and Ressler report today in Nature Neuroscience1. Despite never having encountered acetophenone in their lives, the offspring exhibited increased sensitivity when introduced to its smell, shuddering more markedly in its presence compared with the descendants of mice that had been conditioned to be startled by a different smell or that had gone through no such conditioning. A third generation of mice — the ‘grandchildren’ — also inherited this reaction, as did mice conceived through in vitro fertilization with sperm from males sensitized to acetophenone. Similar experiments showed that the response can also be transmitted down from the mother.
These responses were paired with changes to the brain structures that process odours. The mice sensitized to acetophenone, as well as their descendants, had more neurons that produce a receptor protein known to detect the odour compared with control mice and their progeny. Structures that receive signals from the acetophenone-detecting neurons and send smell signals to other parts of the brain (such as those involved in processing fear) were also bigger.
Some researchers are incredulous because they say that a mechanism that would pass on the fear has not been identified. Clearly, that is the next step.
Note: This research may have market value. If we could just get rats to fear granaries and deer to fear highways at night …