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Thursday Complexity Post
July 31, 2014

The Smell of Fear and Inherited Trauma


Babies can learn very early in life to fear something that frightened their mothers even before they were born. Scientists have known for some time that trauma can ripple through generations. New research on fear transmission may help explain how that happens.


A team of researchers from the University of Michigan Medical School taught a group of female rats to fear the smell of peppermint by repeatedly accompanying the smell with mild but unpleasant electric shocks. That was before they were pregnant. After the rats became pregnant and gave birth, the team exposed them to the peppermint smell again, without the shocks, to induce the fear response again.


A story on the university website by Kara Gavin explains that the babies of fearful mother rats, and a comparable group of rat pups whose mothers had no fear of peppermint, were exposed to the smell under many conditions with and without their mothers. When babies were separated from their mothers and exposed to the minty smell along with air piped to them from a nearby container occupied by their frightened mothers, they quickly learned to fear the smell. The trigger for learning apparently was the scent the mothers give off when they are fearful.


"Our research demonstrates that infants can learn from maternal expression of fear very early in life," said Jacek Debiec, MD, PhD, the psychiatrist and neuroscientist who led the research. "Before they can even make their own experiences, they basically acquire their mothers' experiences. Most important, these maternally transmitted memories are long-lived, where other types of infant learning, if not repeated, rapidly perish."


In a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Debiec and colleague Regina Marie Sullivan PhD, describe how brain imaging, studies of the genetic activity of individual brain cells, and monitoring blood levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, were used to examine the working of fear in the brain. They found a brain structure called the lateral amygdale was the key location for learning fears, and when they gave baby rats something that blocked activity in that region, they did not learn their mothers' fear. That could help explain why some offspring of traumatized mothers don't inherit fears. The authors hope the work will aid understanding of post-traumatic stress and other mental ills in humans.


Debiec, recalls working with adult children of Holocaust survivors who had nightmares and flashbacks related to experiences they had not endured themselves. Rachel Yehuda, a psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, has studied descendants of Holocaust survivors and the children of women who were pregnant and in or near the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001. She found evidence of intergenerational trauma transmission that could not have occurred through storytelling. She was not involved in Debiec's work, but she told Arielle Duhaime-Ross of Verge magazine that the study is valuable because it provides molecular analysis that would not be possible in living human brains. She said understanding the brain changes that occur with intergenerational transmission could help people understand the long-term impact of parental experiences. "Your fears are not only a response to your personal experiences," Yehuda told Verge, "but those that your parents had as well."



Events of interest  


RCRC Roundtable, September 4-5, 2014 in Billings, Montana will be two highly interactive days of fun and learning on the topic of "Bridging Across Differences - Advancing the Practice of Relational Coordination," hosted by the innovative Billings Clinic and sponsored by Plexus Institute.


Leading Organizations to Health is a 10-month program on change leadership that integrates leading edge theories (from complexity, relational coordination, positive psychology, adult development and other domains) with advanced facilitation skills and peer coaching, all in a highly experiential and reflective learning environment.  

The 1st International Conference on Systems and Complexity in Health, November 13-14, 2014 in Washington, DC will bring together for the first time leading thinkers and researchers to explore and exchange insights under the theme: The value of systems and complexity sciences for healthcare: An imperative for the 21st century. 



Remember PlexusCalls!



Friday, August 1, 2014- 1-2 PM ET

Making Better Meetings
Guests: Richard Axelrod, Emily Axelrod, and Lisa Kimball                


Ever hear of the Meeting Canoe? It's a blueprint for effective meetings that Dick and Emily Axelrod developed from their work with Peter Block and Kathy Dannemiller in the School for Managing and Leading Change. In their book, Let's Stop Meeting Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done, Dick and Emily talk about how to design and lead the gathering that are vital to any change process. Join the conversation to learn more about a simple model to meet, collaborate, decide and get things done.




Friday, August 8, 2014- 1-2 PM ET

Caring Science, Food and Health in Cameroon
Guests: John Nelson and Relindis Moffor                


When an agronomy professor heard John Nelson mention at a meeting that he worked in healthcare and studied the science of caring, she asked his thoughts on food sustainability. The professor helps runs an international food initiative in five countries, and she knew the hest initiatives are often foiled by poor transportation, spoilage, violent conflict and corruption. How might deliberate human caring be used in getting food to those who need it most? John Nelson and Relindis Moffor relied on Jean Watson's theory of caring to set up a small human-relationship centered food program among women in villages of Cameroon who are HIV positive, and they hope this pilot will add to the evolution of an interdisciplinary field of caring science.

Healthcare PlexusCalls

Wednesday, August 20, 2014- 1-2 PM ET

Project ECHO: Building Capacity for Specialized Care in Remote Places
Guests: Erika Harding                 


Ten years ago, Dr. Sanjeev Arora, a hepatologist at the University of New Mexico, became concerned because patients with chronic hepatitis C were dying, despite the availability of drugs that could cure 45-70 percent of patients. Waiting times of six to eight months to get an appointment were common; the long drive to reach specialists and the need for many treatments discouraged many from even trying to get help. The patients who did reach the clinic might be beyond the point where treatment would help. He wanted to expand his capacity, to share his specialized knowledge with primary care physicians in remote areas, so patients could be treated close to home.


This was the start of Project ECHO, which today assists providers in more than a thousand clinics with 26 specialties. Donald Berwick, former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and former president and CEO of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, observed that Project ECHO's model represents a fundamental design shift-"from moving the patient to moving the knowledge"-to build a health care system capable of meeting today's soaring demands for care. "They've shown that with proper support the primary care workforce, including nurses, not just doctors, can function to very high levels of precision with highly complex care." Erika Harding, Director of Replication Initiatives for Project ECHO, will join the call to share the story of this successful idea, and where it is being used today.   




Friday, August 22, 2014- 1-2 PM ET

Quality Childhood Programs Boost Adult Health
Guests: James Heckman, Gabriella Conti and Ruth Perry                


A growing body of evidence suggests early childhood adversity echoes throughout lifetimes in terms of diminished educational and economic outcomes. Researchers have also found that can be changed-and that high quality early interventions impact adult health in surprising ways. Data from the North Carolina Abecedarian Project started in 1972 shows adults who received educational, medical and nutritional support from infancy through age 5 have less high blood pressure, less obesity, and lower incidence of chronic diseases than peers who were not part of the intervention. James Heckman, a Nobel laureate in economics and University of Chicago professor, led the data analysis. He and health economist Gabriella Conti are coauthors of Science Magazine article detailing results of the study.  Ruth Perry leads the Trenton Health Team in Trenton, NJ. 



See all upcoming PlexusCalls on the Plexus Calendar.  

Audio from all PlexusCall series is available by searching the iTunes store for plexuscalls. Or, visit under Resources/Call Series. 


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