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But pioneering studies showed that molecular bric-a-brac could be added to DNA in adulthood, setting off a cascade of cellular changes resulting in cancer.Sometimes methyl groups attached to DNA thanks to changes in diet; other times, exposure to certain chemicals appeared to be the cause.Now, at the bar in Madrid, Szyf and Meaney considered a hypothesis as improbable as it was profound: If diet and chemicals can cause epigenetic changes, could certain experiences — child neglect, drug abuse or other severe stresses — also set off epigenetic changes to the DNA inside the neurons of a person’s brain?That question turned out to be the basis of a new field, behavioral epigenetics, now so vibrant it has spawned dozens of studies and suggested profound new treatments to heal the brain.The more licking as babies, the lower the stress hormones as grown-ups.It was almost as if the mother rats were licking away at a genetic dimmer switch.The bar was in Madrid, where the Cajal Institute, Spain’s oldest academic center for the study of neurobiology, was holding an international meeting.Moshe Szyf, a molecular biologist and geneticist at Mc Gill University in Montreal, had never studied psychology or neurology, but he had been talked into attending by a colleague who thought his work might have some application. So it was perfect.” The two engaged in animated conversation about a hot new line of research in genetics.

And for those unlucky enough to descend from miserable or withholding grandparents, emerging drug treatments could reset not just mood, but the epigenetic changes themselves.

“It’s all about the tactile stimulation,” Meaney says.

In a landmark 1997 paper in , he showed that natural variations in the amount of licking and grooming received during infancy had a direct effect on how stress hormones, including corticosterone, were expressed in adulthood.

Voodoo Genetics Twenty years after helping to set off a revolution, Meaney sits behind a wide walnut table that serves as his desk.

A January storm has deposited half a foot of snow outside the picture windows lining his fourth-floor corner office at the Douglas Institute, a mental health affiliate of Mc Gill.

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