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Archive for the ‘DNA’ Category

Genetic Memory: Remembering Your Ancestors’ Lives

Posted by E on April 25, 2016

intergenerational-trauma babushka dolls

Fifteen years after my family emigrated to Canada, I decided to spend the summer after my university graduation backpacking through France and Spain with Dina, my closest girlfriend. We scoured Paris together, rode the overnight trains, sweated under the intense heat of the Andalucian plains, took countless photos of Gaudi’s wonderful modernist architecture in Barcelona, ate churros con chocolat in the back alleys of Madrid.

I was drawn to the south of Spain, in part because Federico Garcia Lorca influenced so much of my poetry that I just had to see the house where he was born in Fuente Vaqueros, to see the mystical Granada he had loved and hated. I wanted to breathe in the same dry, white-hot air that had filled his lungs and infused his verses. And it was there in Moorish Spain, at the foothills of the Alhambra, that I heard the ancient Judaic language of Ladino for the first time.

Elisa AlhambraThe song was “Durme, Durme,” an ancient lullaby sang by the Sephardic Jews of Spain before they were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula by Queen Isabella’s decree. I don’t remember exactly how I came to hear it – I might have been standing under the awning of a shop, taking a break from the unrelenting heat, or while eating cold gazpacho out on a scorching patio. But as soon as the words entered my consciousness, I recognized them. I knew the song, somehow. I started to hum along with it; my mouth began to shape the words, almost as though they were a memory just hanging on the tip of my tongue.

The trouble was, I wasn’t Jewish. I didn’t have any Jewish ancestors that I knew of and my father had died long ago, when I was 13 – before I could ask him any questions about his background. So I chalked up the experience as a déjà vu oddity, one of those freakish yet ubiquitous experiences we all have once in a while, like thinking of someone just as the phone rings or dreaming of an old friend who happens to email us the next day.

A few days later I parted ways with Dina. We said goodbye in Marseilles, a sun-scorched, dusty place just outside the Italian border. I journeyed on to Rome, then Venice, where I found lodgings in a spartan Benedictine nuns’ convent and spent my first afternoons on the lagoon sitting on bridge steps near the canal, gazing at the mossy green water, writing poetry and sketching the images of stray dogs against alabaster buildings.

barracksThen it was time to travel eastwards into Europe. My ultimate destination was Romania, where I planned to track down relatives in my father’s old village and find out more about my family’s past. But before that, I wanted to visit Krakow, Poland so that I could make a pilgrimage to Auschwitz, the Nazi extermination camp where millions of people met their deaths. I wanted to see the place in order to understand the scope of the brutality that had swept Europe only two generations earlier.

On the day I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau, the sun was high up in the sky. The grass was knee-tall and swayed against my bare legs. The floorboards underneath my feet crackled and snapped as I walked among the barracks crammed with three-tiered bunk slots. Sunlight filtered in through gaps in the planks that formed the walls, smearing long, arrow-like shafts along the ground.

I thought of those nameless prisoners and something deep inside me stirred – the same familiarity I’d experienced when I heard that Ladino song back in Granada. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, and I swear I recognized that smell. The smell of burning ashes and wet wood, of fear and lost hopes.

I was here before.

I was twenty-five years old and World War Two had been over for close to sixty years but somehow I had been there, or someplace equally terrible. In the intense heat of that August afternoon, an ice-cold shudder passed right through me.

Elisa Jewish family historyI hadn’t expected this. At sixteen years old, I was recruited by a Canadian neo-Nazi group called the Heritage Front and sent to work for Ernst Zundel, renowned Holocaust-denier and publisher of anti-Semitic propaganda that was distributed worldwide. I left the group at age 18 and testified against its leaders in court, but it took several years for me to get over the guilt of having been part of such a hateful thing. To understand that as a minor girl, I had been exploited by group leaders.

In the years that followed I lived in hiding, and during that time I used many aliases. The surname I used the longest was Cohen – for whatever reason it felt natural that I would adopt a Jewish surname, and that one in particular seemed to speak to me.

Years later, after I managed to track down my uncle in my father’s village and started piecing together my father’s past, the truth came out. It came in the form of a pretty lacquered box that had been my grandmother’s most prized possession. It was inscribed for her, bearing the name “Anna” on its bottom. And when I opened it, the name Kohan was etched inside its lid – a Hungarian version of….you guessed it, Cohen.

Discovering that my father had been Jewish was a surreal experience. For so long I’d wanted it to be true, because so much would make sense. My collection of babushka dolls and Russian things, my affinity for Ladino music, my connection to Jewish people, klezmer and food, the fact that the Transylvanian region where my father’s family came from was a known place where Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews had intermingled.

For ten years I’d wanted to convert to Judaism, but it was only after I took a 23andme DNA test that the choice to become a Jew became simple. The results showed I had Romanian, Russian, Polish, Hungarian and Italian/Greek roots, and confirmed my heritage as a blend of Ashkenazi, Balkan and Sephardic. The Relative Finder tool even matched me to over two dozen third and fourth cousins with the surnames Cohen, Cohn, Kaplan or Kuhn.

For me, the process of conversion wasn’t simply a matter of embracing the hidden religion of my ancestors and their multigenerational persecution – it also allowed me to accept that the genetic memories I’d experienced all my life were real.

GENETIC MEMORY, AND WHY IT MATTERS

genetic memoryWikipedia defines genetic memory as a memory present at birth that exists in the absence of sensory experience, and is incorporated into the genome over long spans of time.

Why should it matter to you?

Discoveries in the field of genetic memory have immense ramifications on our society, particularly among previously-subjugated persons. What would happen if science proved that trauma was passed down in our cells, from parent to child? What if the anger and mistrust harboured by Aboriginal or African-American peoples isn’t something they can just “get over”? What if they are given a reason to sue governments for restitution based on genetic stressors that have impeded their ability to function?

Sure, one could argue that generations of abused and exploited people will produce offspring who mistrust their government because they grew up hearing tales of discrimination and injustice from their parents and grandparents.

But what if that pain goes beyond anecdotal tales about deceased ancestors absorbed by a marginalized community? What if the pain of a massive traumatic event suffered by a parent or grandparent continues to live within your body, in your physical tissues, in your subconscious anxiety and reflex reactions?

Increasing evidence shows that it can, and indeed it does.

I have researched genetic memory for the last decade, and especially over the last two years as I began working on a memoir that discusses the imprint of multi-generational trauma and suffering. Time and again, my research led me nowhere. The scarcity of scientific data is easily due to academic biases: which scientist is going to study the field if he/she expects their work to be derided by fellow academics who pledge irrefutable allegiance to the Darwinian model?

The History of Genetic Memory

Jean-Baptiste_de_LamarckIn the late eighteenth century, there lived a French biologist by the name of Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck. He was both a predecessor of Darwinian theory and one of its competitors. He was, in fact, one of the first men in history to propose an evolutionary structure to humanity’s existence. Darwin was a mere babe in the cradle when Lamarck began to experiment on organisms using the theory of genetic memory – rather than natural selection – to account for much of the evolution of all species.

He basically asserted that an organism can pass on its memories and experiences to its offspring, and that in and of itself constitutes our evolution.

A new biologist by the name of Paul Kammerer took up the Lamarckian torch in the 1920s, when he experimented on toads in order to prove the validity of genetic memory. Before his results could be released, however, the experiment was tampered with by Nazi sympathizers who sought to bury Kammerer and his work because of his political beliefs.

Since Lamarck and Kammerer’s work was dismissed and/or destroyed, the study of genetic memory has been dormant. At least, until the 21st century.

That’s when a miracle happened. It started with the new and exciting field of Epigenetics, which explores the concept that traits can be passed down to successive generations without alteration to the genetic code but via some other means, and that the experiences of one’s ancestors have a direct effect on our physical and emotional development today.

Sweden epigeneticsOne of epigenetics’ most quoted (and explosive) studies focuses on a 19th century province in northern Sweden which experienced seven years of famine followed by good harvest and abundance of food. Scientists from the Stockholm-based Karolinska Institute evaluated this history of feast and famine to see how it affected the lives of offspring, and found that “life conditions could affect your health not only when you were a fetus, but also well into adulthood.” They concluded that parents’ experiences early in their own lives change the traits they pass on to their offspring. Scarcity of food in grandfather’s life was associated with a significantly extended survival of his grandchildren for many years, whilst food abundance was associated with obesity and a greatly shortened life span of the grandchildren.

intergenerational traumaBut genetic memory is more revolutionary, and goes beyond trait inheritance to argue that memories can pass between generations. In 2013 several animal studies suggested that behaviour itself can be affected by events in previous generations which have been passed on through a form of genetic memory. There is evidence that phobias are also derived from ancestral memories.

In 2013, new research was presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego. Brian Dias, a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University, reported that mice inherit specific smell memories from their fathers — even when the offspring have never experienced that smell before, and even when they’ve never met their father. What’s more, their children are born with the same specific memory. Skepticism and quips/tweets such as “Crazy Lamarkian shit,” formed the kneejerk reflex of many scientists who preferred to stick within their comfort zone and deny that genetic memory could ever exist.

Even when faced with new evidence.

IMPRINTING PAIN AND TRAUMA

multigenerational traumaI don’t blame the scientific community for being afraid to pursue what many of us intuitively sense is a reality. Just imagine the floodgates of victims tearing open – the children of indigenous people who were massacred or sent to residential schools. The descendants of African slaves. The children of “comfort women” who were held prisoner and raped by the Japanese during WW2. The offspring of Holocaust survivors. All potentially suing the governments that exploited their ancestors for the brutality, fear and exploitation that still courses in their veins today.

It’s called Intergenerational Trauma.

Lamarckian theory drove the study of Orthogenesis, which nowadays has been called progressive evolution or autogenesis. This is the hypothesis that life has an innate tendency to evolve in a unilinear manner due to some internal, intrinsic driving force.

Do you know what this means?

It means that the fire inside us, that drive to survive and succeed that burns in our hearts and defines our species, that propels us to create art, to reach sublime peaks of achievement, is based on the building blocks of what has come before, but is still part of us.

There are so many trends in evolution that simply cannot be explained by natural selection alone.

IMG_9131How can you define, through Darwinian natural selection alone, that mysterious inner force in all beings to reach up to the sky, to conquer the universe? That emotion that wells up inside us when we look at a magnificent mountain, when we walk along the shoreline of a vast ocean, when we gaze up to the stars and feel something stir up inside our chest, something that cannot be defined in words alone.

Although I converted to Judaism, I don’t consider myself particularly religious in the sense that I don’t go to temple. Both my parents and myself experienced so much trauma in our early lives without ever being saved by divine intervention. I believe that organized religion and its stringent rules has contributed to more suffering and death than any natural disasters in the history of mankind. So I am not talking about God here.

What I am saying is that we are all connected on some level. We are all part of a grand design that is bigger than the archaic mythology that passes for organized religion. Rooted inside our cells reside the desires, heartaches, and yes – even the memories of every one of our ancestors. And it is this combined force that propels us forward, toward bettering ourselves and the world around us.

Carl Jung talked about racial memory, a collective memory of humanity as a species. To him this meant that the ancestral memories of our forbearers have become part of our collective unconscious and are in fact, continuing to shape our world.

Let me put it in a different way: every single thing that makes us who we are is shaped by our ancestors. Our food preferences, our penchant for hot or cold weather, our phobias and inexplicable fears, even our food sensitivities and idiosyncratic habits lie in our genes. A kitten will instinctively search for the litter box before its mother nudges it; it will automatically salivate at the sound of a can opener or an egg being cracked over a frying pan without ever having tasted eggs or canned food.

In the absence of any actual experiences, genetic memory is carried within our DNA, within the genome of our species.

Just as all rivers flow toward the sea, the blood that flows within our veins carries the memory of its first drop. It REMEMBERS – and makes us who we are.

If you would like to help me write my memoir REMEMBER YOUR NAME, please join me on Patreon.com and become part of the journey.

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DNA and Disease: Would You Want to Know?

Posted by E on February 23, 2016

DNA-image dna evolution

We are the first generation to be exposed to DNA testing for disease, and simultaneously the last generation to be afforded the luxury of not knowing what lies ahead. I predict that the debate of “Know or Not to Know” will end within a generation. The incorporation of genetic profiling in our medical history will become standard practice, as ubiquitous to medicine as a blood test. And this is a good thing – something we should welcome rather than fear.

So many annual deaths due to medication counter-indications and allergic reactions can be avoided. People with high blood pressure and other chronic conditions will no longer have to go through the stress and financial cost of sampling half a dozen prescriptions and trying out different pill cocktails before they find the right one for them – their own body’s genetic sensitivity to some drugs versus others will determine the right SSRI, the perfect hormone or blood pressure pill.

Prescriptions will no longer be not decided by a physician who has their own biases and pharmaceutical preferences, but by what your own body will respond to. This isn’t something to fear, a dystopian, clinical Gattaca scenario where our future potentials are determined in utero – but has the potential to eliminate diseases with gene therapy from infancy or even during gestation.

23andme DNA testing kitMaybe I’m biased, because few of us can claim to be entirely impartial when it comes to something so intimate as your body’s intricate signature and potential disease patterns. Some might think all the information will end up in a government database where “they” will keep track of everything and everyone. But guess what? That’s already happening, and so you may as well benefit from these modern-day advances in genetic screening and disease prevention.

I’m biased because I was one of the lucky ones to order a 23andme DNA kit before the FDA stepped and attempted to shut down the lab, or at least prevent them from informing people about their own medical predispositions. What 23andme offers now is still invaluable information, at least when it comes to familial and ancestral histories, but a watered-down medical report that differs to a certain degree from those kits processed before 2014.

family-tree dnaIn the winter of 2012 I ordered my kit mainly because I wanted to confirm my father’s genetic and ancestral history. For most of my life, I knew nothing about his background. I had only recently learned that he was Jewish, but because he had been born out of wedlock and my grandmother was rejected by my grandfather’s family, that side of my family tree was completely unknown to me – inclusive of their medical history. And since my father died when I was 13, I couldn’t ask him any of the questions I needed to know. Searching for those answers within my blood became a desperate, last-ditch resort to find out the truth.

I bought a kit for myself and for my mother. By isolating at least one living parent’s DNA from mine, 23andme can perform an analysis of phasing against a parent and child, and identify which DNA was my mother’s and which – through exclusion – had to come from my father.

When the results came in, they confirmed my Jewish ancestry and exposed my roots as having extended all over Europe – as far as Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Germany, and basically mirrored the migration of Jews across Europe in the last 500 years. But beside finally learning about my family history, I now discovered a surprising amount of information about my own medical predispositions.

To Know or Not to Know – That is the Question.

DNA-ManEach of us carries a few damaged genes, a twist in a chain, a mutation passed on from an ancestor we never knew but whose blood flows in our veins. Usually bad genes are recessive, meaning people typically don’t find out they are carriers until they manifest in their children. But once genetic testing becomes widespread, and this is only a matter of time, we will all learn our own secret weaknesses.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to this question: the “Knowledge is Power – I have to know” camp and the “If it’s going to happen anyway, I’d rather not spend my life worrying about death” folks.

Neither position is right or wrong, since it’s up to you to decide what you want to discover about your body and its genetic potential. If you’re a worrier and planner, like me, knowing might relieve you of the stress of not knowing and constantly stressing about what might never actually happen.

But if you wish to live in the present and not concern yourself with something that may never happen, that is also a fair decision – especially since just having a genetic mutation does not absolutely guarantee you’ll develop the disease. Toxins in the environment, diet, nurture and lifestyle play a huge part in the onset of so many diseases.

The CONS of finding out your medical history are obvious:

– “There’s nothing I can do about it,” many people have said. “There is no drug or diet that keeps XYZ from progressing. Nor is there any way of knowing whether that progression would end relatively early, in my 40s, or relatively late, in my 80s, when I might already have died of something else.”

– Stress and depression. For example, some women who get abnormal breast cancer test results can trigger anxiety, depression or anger. Even though the results doesn’t mean that a woman will definitely get breast cancer, many women with an abnormal gene assume they will.

– People who learn they have passed on an abnormal gene to their children may feel guilty and worried. (Yet such knowledge may also prepare them for helping their children cope with their genetic information.)

– Some people fear that they could face discrimination in getting insurance coverage or employment. This fear is no longer an issue since, to prevent any such discrimination, the Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act (GINA) was signed into law in 2008 to protect Americans against discrimination based on their genetic information.

The PROS are equally compelling:

– Knowledge is power; being proactive in disease prevention.

– It allows you to begin making dietary and lifestyle changes early in life. If for instance you carry the diabetes variant, you can start exercising, cutting out sugars and monitoring your health better. If you carry the Alzheimer’s variant, you can start mental exercises, doing crossword puzzles, and playing basic computer games that are designed to sharpen your brain’s neural pathways.

– It eliminates unnecessary testing – precious time can be wasted in trying to diagnose people who might suffer from symptoms that could be applicable to several diseases. Alternately, you might constantly go for X-rays and tests thinking you might have cancer because of a family history, when in reality you are not a carrier of that genetic mutation.

– It allows you to take part in early medication programs – just this week I read an article discussing new, potentially life-changing Alzheimer’s prevention drugs that can be taken from your 30s and 40s and will delay or potentially prevent the disease from ever manifesting.

MY RESULTS

23andme breaks down your genotyped results into categories that include Inherited Conditions, Traits, Health Risks and Drug Response.

When I received the email from 23andme stating that my results were ready, I held my breath as I opened the Health Overview tab. In the Drug Response category, I learned that I was sensitive to medicines like Warfarin, and that if (God forbid) I would ever catch malaria, I would likely not respond well to treatment (mental note: don’t ever catch malaria!) I also learned that both myself and my mother had lower odds of responding to the most commonly-prescribed diabetes medicine – a very serious factor given that she had diabetes and it always seemed out of control.

In the Traits category, some of the things I learned were that I had brown hair (correct) and a 10% of having inherited blonde hair (from my mother). I was a fast caffeine metabolizer (which explains why I need more than one cup of coffee a day or I’ll be entirely unproductive) and likely lactose intolerant (yup). I also have a sensitivity to bitter taste and am likely to hate cilantro/coriander. So absolutely true!

I also learned that my eyes were likely to be brown and my hair most likely wavy/curly. Of course I know all these things just by looking in the mirror, but it’s so much fun to see the results get computed from a small vial of saliva and the Illumina HumanOmniExpress-24 format chip.

Although 23andme doesn’t carry out a comprehensive test for all diseases or the entire human genome (that would be cost-prohibitive), I found out that I didn’t carry the gene associated with Parkinson’s or MS – actually, I had significantly lower odds of developing those diseases. I also found out that I didn’t have the BRCA 1 and 2 cancer mutations that are linked with the type of cancers that made Angelina Jolie choose to have a double mastectomy and later on, have her ovaries removed.

alzheimers diseaseBut there was one issue that gave me anxiety above all else: my maternal grandmother had died of Alzheimer’s dementia, and my mother had been going downhill and would become diagnosed with Alzheimer’s later that same year, in 2013.

For the last decade I lived with the fear and uncertainty that I would also, someday, develop Alzheimer’s disease. Seeing its ravages on my mother, I swore that I would end my life early, or at least make provisions while I was still of sound mind for when the disease might strike in me. Being a pessimist, I was convinced that I carried the genetic variant most commonly associated with Alzheimer’s, APOE-4.

And yet there was no question in my mind that I had to know. Either way, since a part of my subconscious already thought I was doomed, if there was a possibility that I was NOT a carrier I could be free of that fear – bearing in mind, of course, that there are other variants that also play into the development of dementia. But APOE-4 was (and still is) the biggest predictor in those with a family history of the disease.

Elisa Alzheimers riskAnd then the moment came for me to click on the Alzheimer’s link. A rather ominous box appeared, asking if I was really sure that I wanted to find out, because some may find the results upsetting. I clicked the yes button and then I saw my fate: I did NOT have the APOE-4 variant. Not only that, but I carried a different gene mutation that actually protected me by reducing my risk for dementia to below the population average.

 

Then I clicked on my mother’s results and there it was – in front of my eyes, what I’d known all along – she WAS a carrier of APOE-4. This is what’s likely to have contributed to her early onset dementia. And only by the grace of God or the universe, or whatever there is out there beyond this world, she had not passed it onto me.

Lucia Alzheimers risk

Chances are, most of you who are reading this know someone who has Alzheimer’s. I’ve had friends and acquaintances whose parents and grandparents are continually suffering from this terrible disease. But not many people my age (unless they work in the medical field) have seen the utter devastation of end-stage Alzheimer’s.

Lucia July31My mother’s dying process took almost a year. In that time, I began to grieve her loss – but none of my close friends understood why I was in mourning. They didn’t understand that dementia is a daily, gradual death by a thousand cuts. With each day, a nuance of the individual fades away. People didn’t understand when I said that she was gone – because technically she was still alive.

But week after week, the human being faded to the point that all that became was a shell – a person with the same DNA, but a body vacant of its spirit. She was only 70 years old, but early onset Alzheimer’s has taken whatever had remained of her. She died a few months after she’d turned 71, on December 2, 2015.

I remember a year earlier, sitting in her apartment and saying sadly, “Someday you will forget me. The same way you forgot all your relatives and your street address and how to use public transport. Someday you’ll forget me too.”

She’d looked at me with a great big smile and shook her head. “Oh no. I’ll never forget you. You are my child – I’ll never forget you. Not you.”

And in the end, she kept that promise. A year later she was in hospital and had forgotten how to go to the toilet, how to eat, even how to chew and swallow. She cried, clawed at and fought with all the nurses, and with me, when we tried to feed her. She thought we were trying to choke her – because she didn’t know what to do with the food in her mouth. It dribbled down her hospital gown. She choked and sputtered, and I kept trying to teach her how to chew, how to swallow, to no avail.

Cu MamaBut through it all, she still remembered me – only me. And she still remembered her own name. I am fortunate for this, because I was the only person who could communicate with her. She had forgotten all English words and could barely communicate in Romanian – she knew perhaps only 20 Romanian words, at best. But she had kept her promise.

Tears are streaming down my face as I am typing this, because I don’t know how to deal with this – how to cope, how to explain the horror and sadness that descended over me the evening of December 2nd, 2015, when – in a softly-lit private room at Mount Sinai Hospital – I held her hands for hours and told her that I loved her, and that she was going to be free soon, that it was okay to let go. And then her breathing went from laboured and hoarse to soft, and then it stopped. And I just held her in my arms and cried and cried and cried.

Knowledge is power. I would always want to know. And I feel so strongly about the FDA and other pharmaceutical bodies trying to shut down sites like 23andme because they would rather bill insurance companies thousands of dollars per genetic test (in North America, the BRCA test costs an average of $2000-$3000) than give people free access to their own genetic history.

dna testingYou could call me a DNA activist. This is my body, and my absolute right to know its predispositions. If for whatever reason you don’t want to know, or you don’t trust independent labs like 23andme, that’s perfectly fine – just don’t get tested. But please don’t interpret the FDA’s moves as anything but a money grab for Big Pharma.

Genetic testing will be the future of disease screening, and the pharmaceutical industry would rather charge you (or your health care system) thousands than have you know your predisposition to 200 diseases for the lowly price of $99. Only a year later, the FDA shut down people’s most affordable way of finding out about their bodies.

Our bodies belong to US – NOT to a corporation. The results are OURS – not the FDA’s to monetize. My mother might have died, but I still have her genetic information and her saliva results will remain in the databank for ten years, allowing for further testing as medical screening improves.

Three years ago, my family members and I received ALL those results (potential cancers, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, medication sensitivities and more (over 300 genetic disease potentials, as well as our ethnic heritage) for only $99 per kit. For just one hundred dollars, I discovered my poor mother had the APOE Alzheimer’s gene (like her mother did before her) while I did NOT.

It was like being released from a death sentence.

For this, I will always be grateful.

sadness heart tree

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