NYU Neuroscientists Receive Grant to Study How Fear is Passed From Generation to Generation


NYU neuroscientists have received a grant from National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSD) to examine how fears are passed from generation to generation.

NYU Neuroscientists Receive Grant to Study How Fear is Passed From Generation to Generation
NYU neuroscientists have received a grant from National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSD) to examine how fears are passed from generation to generation. ©iStockPhoto.com/Sheryl Yazolino Griffin

New York University neuroscientists have received a grant from National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSD) to examine how fears are passed from generation to generation.

The researchers, Jacek Debiec and Regina Sullivan, who both hold appointments at NYU’s Center for Neural Science and the NYU Child Study Center, received the grant under NARSD’s Young Investigator Award Program, which  provides support for the most promising young scientists conducting neurobiological research.

Researchers have found that parental traumatic experiences may have a profound impact on their child’s development and mental health. Because humans and other mammalian species depend on parental care for long periods of time after birth, infants’ ability to respond to their caregivers’ emotional signals is critical for survival. In fact, infants use parental emotional expressions to regulate their own behavior. As a result, by watching a parent being anxious in response to particular threats, a baby may learn to respond to these threats in a fearful way.

Existing research has found that babies are especially sensitive to parental negative emotions.  For that reason, children of parents who suffered emotional trauma would be particularly vulnerable to a parent’s anxious behavior in response to cues reminding them of the trauma. For example, numerous studies demonstrate that the offspring of war-trauma survivors may express anxiety in response to cues recalling their parents’ trauma.

However, the transmission of fear experience across generations, although well documented by clinical studies, has not received much interest in the field of developmental neurobiology. For instance, little is known about neural networks underlying the transfer of learned fear across generations.

Under the NARSD grant, Debiec and Sullivan, who is also a researcher at the Emotional Brain Institute, will study rats in an effort to understand the mother-to-infant transmitted learned fear behavior. Specifically, they will examine neural circuits and mechanisms underlying fear responses that are passed from mother to offspring.

“This research will give us a better understanding of brain networks involved in a transfer of fear across generations and thus will lead to a development of early therapeutic remedies,” Debiec explains.

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