-Shivakumar Belavadi, PPNE, Bangalore, India

TOPIC - Define epigenetics and explain why it is important to human development and most especially prenatal and perinatal psychology.


GENETICS - gives us the understanding of DNA and Genes. A gene is a segment of the DNA strand, which contains a basic sequencing code causing a particular biological development or transaction to take place. This was understood to be locked in at the time of conception when 23 chromosomes from the mother and 23 from the father combine to create a new life in a cellular form called Zygote. It was believed that this pattern would not change and thus what was determined at conception was what one lived with for his/her lifetime. This was the foundational premise of genetic determinism.

EPIGENETICS - While the sequencing of the code within the DNA may not change, it is now known and understood that modifications could be caused in the way a gene expresses itself. This is usually referred to as the “switching on and switching off” of genes. Certain mechanisms called environmental signals could cause the switching on/off of genes and thus alter their expression. Such mechanisms go beyond the ab-initio determining code and cause the on/off events in gene expression.

Epigenetics opens up the understanding from the limited range of cause and effect being orchestrated only through genes and genetic coding within them, to the larger aspects of influences from outside and the interconnections between the outside and inside.

Signals could be from the environment within the body as in chemicals and hormones or from the environment outside the body like radiation or traumatic events of rape, accident or large scale ones like 9-11. Knowing and understanding the signalling/switching on/off mechanisms is being done through super sciences like “Signal Transduction”. These modifications may not change the DNA sequence, but instead, they affect how cells "read" genes. An example would be the addition of a methyl group to a DNA molecule which will not alter the DNA sequence but can prevent genes from being expressed.

In summary, Epigenetics literally means "above" or "on top of" genetics. It refers to external modifications to DNA that turn genes "on" or "off."

Genetic Determinism had limited human endeavour, form, expressions, thoughts, feelings, emotions, diseases ……… indeed all of life because of a definitive event which take place once in a life-time i.e. at the time of conception. Once that determination happened, there was no further scope for change or modification. Thus one had to live life in accordance with that. We had no further control on our life. For instance, we had to contract a particular disease, if it were to be caused by a gene, we had to have a certain defined bodily form and structure and all of what we are and live to was determined by the sequencing code in a DNA.  This had severely affected inspiration to change and put creativity of humanity at the mercy of genetic determinism. 

Epigenetics has brought back a new hope into mankind. It is now clear that environmental signals could alter gene expression and therefore we could still be masters of our life and perceptions! We need not be enslaved by “deterministic body, thoughts and feelings” but regain a sense of purpose, control or modify our lives to charter new avenues using epigenetics. Thus we can lead a more holistic life and not be stifled by genes.  

We can clearly sense that we are not helpless being purely under the control of genes but can look upon ourselves with renewed confidence. The way my body is, my thoughts, feelings and emotions are and connections to everything in and around me is- that’s  what makes me – ME ! I am no prisoner of genes!

Today chemicals and physical surgery are the two known medical means. New paradigm for growth and development are opening up. There could be new cures for diseases. These could expand to energy healing, psychic healing and the like which could be through usage of pure environmental signals.

We can alter expression of genes to make living more meaningful and purposeful. But, we also need to exercise due caution as environmental signals could be a double edged sword if we catch-on to wrong signals!


In the understanding fostered by genetic determinism, it was felt that no further intervention was possible in shaping the life of child/human being once conception had happened.  With the advent of epigenetics, that has changed. In the light of the new understanding through epigenetics, we now know that a child in the womb and in early stages of life is capable of taking in inputs. Parents and care-givers can be empowered and they in turn can infuse energy, life and purpose into a child.

Our understanding of childbirth, child growth, childhood and role of parents, caregivers and society will be more purposeful. Gene selection, genomic imprinting and gene expression are all subject to influences. From the preconception phase, through pregnancy and infancy, efforts could be made to improve the quality of life of a child. A child can take inputs and respond to those - all through these phases.

Congenital diseases, prenatal and perinatal disorders, manifestations of diseases like cancer in adults may be addressed differently. New and holistic methods of prevention or treatment could emerge for the likes of autism, Downs Syndrome and childhood conditions disorders. On the positive side, inputs could be given to improve health, immunity, intelligence, behaviour and such other aspects of development of a child. Parents and society will have a role to play in the growth and development of children.

This leaves humanity with hope. We have an opportunity to improve the quality of lives of our children - make them healthier, endow them with immunity, fill them with more abilities and make them worthy members of society. Indeed earth could become a better place. We can look forward to bringing up children in a new light.

The limitations which were placed on human construct are not so severe now. The burden of genetic determinism is off our backs now. We could engage with each other with positivity. Such engagement at prenatal and perinatal stages is bound to help children, parents, families, society and the humanity at large. Thus epigenetics opens up a whole new world of possibilities right from the formative or primary stages of live!