Zachary, North Carolina asked:
Can our genes code for our memories?
We posed this question to Professor Wolf Reik from the Babraham Institute in Cambridge...
Wolf - This depends what kind of memories we’re talking about. We work on epigenetic memory which is really the memory in the genome, epigenetic markers in the genome, and that can be passed on from cell to cell, so that cells, when they divide, basically remember what they were before. This is going on all the time, this kind of epigenetic memory. All of the cells that we have in our body carry this kind of memory of their identity, of what they are, of what tissue they are, and this is really important because if that memory goes wrong for example, the outcome can be cancer.
And then, is it possible that the environment and things that we experience is laid down in memories in the brain? That’s certainly the case. Is that through epigenetic mechanisms? Maybe.
Then to extend the question even further, is it possible that those memories that get laid down in the brain as part of an epigenetic mechanism could be inherited by our children and grandchildren? I think that’s a big leap, kind of theoretically possible, but remember that brain cells are very specialised. The things that get laid down in the brain cells predominantly happens after birth.
Diana - So epigenetic memory can be inherited by cells and help them to become liver cells, heart cells, or even brain cells. But the things we experience through life create memories and they're recorded in or between our brain cells, and brain cells would’ve divided following the instructions from their epigenetic memory. But this epigenetic memory would’ve been written before your parents had collected any memories in the first place.
Wolf - And at that point, the germ cells, the egg or the sperm which then transmit the genetic and epigenetic information to children and grandchildren are already formed, and are far away from the brain. And so, the short answer is that the things that happen to the brain, and may even involve epigenetic mechanisms to consolidate memory, in my view are not so likely to be passed on to our children and grandchildren.
Diana - Perhaps you can inherit epigenetic memory from your parents, but not memories from their very varied and interesting lives. There has been quite a bit of research on worm epigenetics. A team in Massachusetts in the USA found that worms which experience stress whilst developing would pass on different epigenetic information to its offspring than those which had been happy larvae. And some people think that humans who underwent stresses like malnutrition during development might pass their epigenetics onto future offspring too.
That's a very interesting theory; do you have a reference for it?
Humans only seem to exhibit a few instinctive actions, many of which seem to disappear not long after we are born. Other mammals are instinctively able to perform highly complex actions (like running for example) almost as soon as they are born, so it might not be unreasonable to think that humans could inherit complex subconscious reactions to situations that could be very important to survival.
Dr. Chris, how about looking into the prospect of child prodigies?
Aren't memories handed down in our genes called "instincts?" Perhaps you don't think of instincts as proper memories but isn't that exactly what they are?
"Planarian flatworms were thought to have genetic memory based on a certain experiment. One worm was taught to navigate a maze, then ground up and fed to a second worm. This second worm would then navigate the maze as well as the first with no practice. Later experiments proved that the second worm was following a scent trail; when placed in an identical but unused maze it showed no sign of the supposed genetic memory. Why? Because the second batch of worms in the original maze were simply following the scent/slime trails left by their predecessors. A similar story has it that the second worm "ran a maze" faster (in this case, learned to associate a bright light with a shock) simply because it was better fed." yor_on, Wed, 8th Sep 2010
How many reported times have people been known to experience the doners memories.
i have some of my mothers childhood memories. I freaked her out when i told her about what I saw and how I was feeling. Remembering what seemed like I was there and it was my thoughts, I had lived. She died 9 years ago, and more memories keep coming up. They are like picture snapshots, with thoughts and smells but no sound so far. james, Tue, 6th Dec 2011