Can Learned Fear Be Inherited?

04 Jan

Every species has information necessary for individual and species survival hard-wired in its DNA. It’s all part of the evolutionary dictum of survival of the fittest. Some “know” to hang together in groups to ward off predators and survive; others “know” to hunt in packs to ward off group starvation. Some “know” to burrow into the ground to hide during the vulnerable sleep period; others “know” to climb the tallest trees for the same reason. Much of this behavior is ingrained; some is learned from other group members. Of course the ingrained knowledge is passed along but can the learned behavior be also?

So the question becomes: can learned fear be inherited? Can it be passed on to future generations? Can this fear alter the DNA of the individual and can this altered DNA be passed along to its offspring?

For mice, at least, it seems that it is. In an interesting study conducted at Atlanta’s Emory School of Medicine, mice were found to pass on learned fear to their offspring. And then to the offspring’s offspring.


White Mouse

I wonder which one of my parents passed on a fear of sharks? No, wait a minute, that was Jaws. Or perhaps it’s simply common sense.




Posted by on January 4, 2015 in Medical Issues


6 responses to “Can Learned Fear Be Inherited?

  1. Irene McKenna

    January 4, 2015 at 2:15 pm

    This is fascinating, and the potential implications are kind of disturbing, especially considering the number of people who suffer from PTSD and other anxiety disorders.


  2. Brenda

    January 4, 2015 at 3:08 pm

    I wondered about that — in cats and people. Our super friendly little rescue cat had a sib he adored who was extremely fearful of people & she has descendants who with rare exceptions are the same. We knew she’d teach them to be cautious around people which is good of course but only one or two in each generation of her descendants has been friendly….


  3. Cheryl B. Dale

    January 4, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    The theory makes sense to me, but I’m wondering if fear is the only trait that can be transmitted or if other things (pleasure in the scent of a certain flower, instinctively knowing how to cup a baby’s head) can also be transmitted.


  4. julielrobinson

    January 4, 2015 at 7:15 pm

    I remember reading years ago about a study done where PTSD was passed on from parent to child. And i could see how this would be because a child would learn certain behaviors from a parent suffering from PTSD. And that child would have to learn to cope with it as well while growing up.


  5. Pat Marinelli

    January 4, 2015 at 7:40 pm

    I inherited my Mom’s fear of spiders. So did my little sister. My twin? Not so much. Although she doesn’t like them.


  6. Suzanne Joshi

    January 5, 2015 at 2:35 am

    This seems to make sense, but children also watch adults, mimic, and pick up on fear, so that could be a large part of it.



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