Bianca Jones Marlin - Sensing Trauma: Intergenerational Inheritance of Olfactory Sensory Experience

Event Details:

Thursday, March 14, 2024
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12:00pm to 1:00pm PDT
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Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute
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Join the speaker for coffee, cookies, and conversation before the talk, starting at 11:45am.

Sensing Trauma: Intergenerational Inheritance of Olfactory Sensory Experience 


The role of a parent is to promote survival in their offspring.  Growing evidence indicates adaptive and learned biological responses to stress experienced in a parent can be passed to the subsequent generation via epigenetic modifications in the germ line. This phenomenon, known as “intergenerational epigenetic inheritance,” suggests parents could unknowingly, but adaptively, prepare their offspring for the unpredictable pressures they have experienced in their lifetimes.  The overarching goal of the Marlin Lab is to study the phenomenon of intergenerational epigenetic inheritance, with a primary focus on the olfactory system. We examine how neurons in the main olfactory epithelium of the nose encode odor-associated memories of fear. My lab and others have found this learning process leads to structural changes in the main olfactory epithelium, potentially making it more sensitive to the fearful odor. Remarkably, the structural changes observed in the main olfactory epithelium are also found in offspring, suggesting the threatening odor is not only represented in the nose, but also in the gametes of parents. We have uncovered a mechanism of this type of intergenerational epigenetic inheritance: an increase in newly-born cells tuned to the fear-associated odor. Understanding how memories are transmitted biologically, rather than experientially, can have a profound impact on society- providing inroads to earlier intervention and alleviating the burden of mental health crises.


Bianca Jones Marlin, Ph.D.

Columbia University's Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute 

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Bianca Jones Marlin, PhD is a neuroscientist and the Herbert and Florence Irving Assistant Professor of Cell Research in the Departments of Psychology and Neuroscience at Columbia University and the Zuckerman Institute and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Freeman Hrabowski Scholar. Her research investigates how organisms unlock innate behaviors at appropriate times, and how learned information is passed to subsequent generations via transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. Dr. Marlin’s experimental approach combines neural imaging, behavior, and molecular genetics to uncover the mechanisms by which learning and emotion are biologically transmitted from neurons of the parent to neurons of their offspring. The resulting insights into how learned behavior in the parent can become innate behavior in the offspring promise to make a profound impact on societal brain health, mental well-being, and parenting.

Prior to joining the faculty at Columbia, Dr. Marlin completed her postdoctoral work under the mentorship of Nobel Laureate, Dr. Richard Axel, where she investigated how trauma experienced by parents affects the brain structure and sensory experience of their future offspring. Dr. Marlin received her PhD from New York University working in the lab of Dr. Robert Froemke, where she examined how the brain adapts to care for a newborn— specifically the role of the neuropeptide oxytocin in maternal behavior. She has dual bachelor degrees in biology and adolescent education from St. John’s University.

Dr. Marlin’s work has been recognized with several awards and honors, including: Popular Science Magazine’s Brilliant 10, the STAT Wunderkind Award, the Allen Institute’s Next Generation Leaders Council, the Donald B. Lindsley Prize in Behavioral Neuroscience, and Discover Magazine’s Top 100 Stories. Her research and perspectives have been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, Discover Magazine, and Forbes, among others.

Hosted by - Rahul Nagvekar (The Brunet Lab)

About the Wu Tsai Neuro Seminar Series

The Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute seminar series brings together the Stanford neuroscience community to discuss cutting-edge, cross-disciplinary brain research, from biochemistry to behavior and beyond.

Topics include new discoveries in fundamental neurobiology; advances in human and translational neuroscience; insights from computational and theoretical neuroscience; and the development of novel research technologies and neuro-engineering breakthroughs.

Unless otherwise noted, seminars are held Thursdays at 12:00 noon PT.

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