Scientists from the Georgetown University Medical Center say that a growing body of research is revealing associations between birth defects and a father's age, alcohol use, and environmental factors. They say these defects result from epigenetic alterations that can potentially affect multiple generations.
The study (“Influence of Paternal Preconception Exposures on Their Offspring: Through Epigenetics to Phenotype”), published in the American Journal of Stem Cells, suggests both parents contribute to the health status of their offspring, a common-sense conclusion that science is only now beginning to demonstrate, says the study's senior investigator, Joanna Kitlinska, Ph.D., an associate professor in biochemistry, and molecular and cellular biology.
“We know the nutritional, hormonal, and psychological environment provided by the mother permanently alters organ structure, cellular response, and gene expression in her offspring,” she explains. “But our study shows the same thing to be true with fathers—his lifestyle, and how old he is, can be reflected in molecules that control gene function. In this way, a father can affect not only his immediate offspring, but future generations as well.”
For example, a newborn can be diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), even though the mother has never consumed alcohol, notes Dr. Kitlinska. “Up to 75% of children with FASD have biological fathers who are alcoholics, suggesting that preconceptual paternal alcohol consumption negatively impacts their offspring.”
The report is a review of evidence, human and animal, published to date on the link between fathers and heritable epigenetic programming. Among the studies reviewed are ones that find:
- Advanced age of a father is correlated with elevated rates of schizophrenia, autism, and birth defects in his children.
- A limited diet during a father's preadolescence has been linked to reduced risk of cardiovascular death in his children and grandchildren.
- Paternal obesity is linked to enlarged fat cells, changes in metabolic regulation, diabetes, obesity, and development of brain cancer.
- Psychosocial stress on the father is linked to defective behavioral traits in his offspring.
- Paternal alcohol use leads to decreased newborn birth weight, marked reduction in overall brain size, and impaired cognitive function.
“This new field of inherited paternal epigenetics needs to be organized into clinically applicable recommendations and lifestyle alternations,” points out Dr. Kitlinska. “And to really understand the epigenetic influences of a child, we need to study the interplay between maternal and paternal effects, as opposed to considering each in isolation.”