Bacterial infection may impact brain and mental health of future generations

Florey researchers discovered that paternal infection, which alters RNA molecules in sperm, can lead to changes in offspring brain development — including behavioural changes relevant to anxiety and depression.

Exposure to stress and substance abuse are known to influence the health and quality of sperm epigenetics.

Now, a study published in Brain Behavior and Immunity, led by Professor Anthony Hannan and conducted by Dr Huan Liao with The Florey’s Epigenetics and Neural Plasticity Group, investigates how bacterial infections too can affect sperm genetics and impact the health of future offspring.

Dr Huan Liao in the lab
Dr Huan Liao

Through mimicking bacterial infection in a preclinical mouse model, the team found that the infection led to significant changes in RNA molecules in sperm.

The effects of these changes included behavioural changes similar to anxiety and depressive-like behaviours, and were seen not only in direct offspring, but also grand-offspring.

Professor Anthony Hannan and the team had previously modelled viral infection and its effect on sperm epigenetics and offspring brain function. However, the study’s results differed when it came to paternal bacterial infection.

Dr Huan Liao, Research Officer at The Florey, said this recent study illuminates the profound impact of paternal exposures on offspring across multiple generations.

“These discoveries underscore the intricate links between environmental exposures and heritable changes, paving the way for new insights into epigenetic inheritance and its long-term effects on health and disease.”

Different types of infection, and the immune system’s response to these infections, can influence genetics delivered through sperm in different ways, thus its effect on the development of future generations also may vary.

Professor Anthony Hannan in lab
Professor Anthony Hannan

Professor Hannan said this understanding of the impact of infection on epigenetics, and the role of epigenetics in brain function and immunity, is critical at a time when infectious diseases are on the rise. 

“With pandemics of infectious diseases predicted to become more frequent, this research has major implications for human health, including that of future generations.”


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