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Rat study shows ancestral fear 'causes brain changes'

A new study published in Nature Neuroscience has shown that rats taught to fear a certain smell could pass that fear onto their offspring.

Marcus Pembrey, emeritus professor of paediatric genetics, says it has implications for our understanding of the "nature versus nurture" debate.

Prof Pembrey told the Today programme "sperm can carry information about the ancestral environment or experiences, in this case the conditioning shocks of the grandfather."

"Not only was the sensitivity to this very particular smell passed on to the son and the grandson…but also the changes in the brain, these particular receptors for that smell were passed on," he added.

Dr Nessa Carey, author of The Epigenetics Revolution, said this inheritance "is potentially quite useful in evolutionary terms."

"If you are a rat, it is handy to know that a fox is likely to kill you…before you actually encounter a fox," he added, "the likelihood is that something like this is also happening to some extent in humans. We have data on this from the Dutch hunger period during the second world war."

First broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Monday 2 December 2013.

  • 02 Dec 2013