Genes are far more than protein machines, pumping out their product like a popcorn maker. Many carry what are, in effect, chemical attachments: compounds acting on the DNA molecule that regulate when, where or how much protein is made, without altering the recipe itself. Studies suggest that such add-on, or epigenetic, markers develop as an animal adapts to its environment, whether in the womb or out in the world — and the markers can profoundly affect behavior.
...researchers have shown that affectionate mothering alters the expression of genes, allowing them to dampen their physiological response to stress. These biological buffers are then passed on to the next generation: rodents and nonhuman primates biologically primed to handle stress tend to be more nurturing to their own offspring.
...Epigenetic markers may likewise hinder normal development: the offspring of parents who experience famine are at heightened risk for developing schizophrenia, some research suggests — perhaps because of the chemical signatures on the genes that parents pass on. Another recent study found evidence that, in some people with autism, epigenetic markers had silenced the gene which makes the receptor for the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin oils the brain’s social circuits, and is critical in cementing relationships.
...The National Institutes of Health is sponsoring about 100 studies looking at the relationship between epigenetic markers and behavior problems, including drug abuse, post-traumatic stress, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, compared with just a handful of such studies a decade ago.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
How life experiences alter what our genes do.
a nice non-technical article on epigenetics, how people’s experience and environment affect the function of their genes. Some clips: