Why do some people in the same family get sick and others do not? Until recently, scientists explained that such differences were attributable to either nature (genes) or nurture (environment), or some indescribable combination of both. And, for the most part, that explanation is still correct, except for the indescribable part. That part is now a describable field of science called epigenetics, and it is changing the landscape of medicine as we know it.
The building blocks of life
Deoxyribonucleic acids (DNA) are the building blocks of life. Genes are sections of DNA that basically contain the instructions for how to form the molecules that build and regulate the components of living beings. Children carry the genetic material from both parents, but only a small amount of the DNA they possess is expressed at any given time. But genetic expression can change. When genes change, people change.
Genes actually have “switches,” and can be “turned on” or “turned off” by factors such as age, lifestyle, toxins and stress. The study of these changes in how genes are expressed (turned on and off) is called epigenetics.
Poverty is depressing
Now it seems that poverty can affect gene expression as well. Ahmad Hariri, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Duke University, compared poor children to wealthy children over several years. He and his colleagues studied participants’ brains via brain scan as well as changes in the gene associated with depression.
Dr. Hariri and his colleagues found that the children who were growing up in poverty had more activation of their amygdala, which is the part of the brain that moderates stress. In addition, the poor children also had significantly more methylation in the area of the gene associated with depression, indicating that their depression gene had been switched on.
Passing it on
Interestingly, DNA methylation appears to have something to do with memory, and memories that get passed on to future generations. While both genes that are and are not expressed get passed on to prodigy, evidence shows that methylated DNA in parents corresponds to methylated DNA in offspring. This may be why depressed parents may have depressed children, and so forth. Might DNA help explain the cycle of poverty? If so, could an intervention that ends poverty end familial depression?
From bench to bedside
Daniel A. Notterman, Ph.D., is a molecular biologist at Princeton University who also has discovered important changes in DNA from children growing up in poverty. Dr. Notterman noted, “If researchers can identify DNA markers that are strongly linked to brain activity and behavior, they could be used as a test for whether depression drugs are effectively treating a person’s disease.”
Similar to Dr. Notterman’s suggestion is another form of genetic testing currently being used in the treatment of individuals with depression and other mental illnesses. Pharmacogenetic testing (PGx) is a relatively new technique that gives mental health professionals insight into the unique genetic composition of their clients. PGx informs providers how individual clients will respond to different medications, such as antidepressants. PGx also warns providers if a patient is at risk for an adverse reaction to certain medications and what dose would be required to achieve a therapeutic effect.
While poverty is well-known to be related to many chronic illnesses, including depression, understanding how genetic influences play a role may help lead to a solution. New strategies in the prevention and treatment of depression could help end the cycle of depression and poverty in those currently suffering and, perhaps, in future generations as well.
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About the author
Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer, she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education.