One of the oldest debates in psychology is on whether “nature or nurture” determines why people are the way they are. Are people born the way they are or do they become that way because of how they are raised? Apparently, it appears that both nature and nurture are equally responsible.
Genetics and epigenetics: Nature and nurture
Genetics involve genes, which are the composition of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), from which all living things are made. Genetics are the “nature” of life. DNA is incredibly powerful and determines everything about living organisms, including physical and mental health.
Genes have “switches” that can be turned on and off, so simply having a certain gene does not necessarily mean that that gene will or will not be expressed at any particular point in life. While the human genome has been mapped, scientists are only beginning to understand how and why certain genes are expressed while others are not.
Epigenetics involve environmental factors that turn such genetic switches on and off. Epigenetics could be considered the “nurture” aspect of life. Environmental factors have been shown to promote or inhibit genetic expression. For example, tumor suppressor genes are supposed to be turned on in response to cancer cells, but can be affected by conditions like malnutrition or toxin exposure.
Not only ingested nutrients or toxins affect genes. How living beings are treated also appears to have epigenetic effects. A study of rats showed that pups whose mothers licked and groomed them were less anxious than those of mothers who did not. In fact, the young of the affectionate mothers were also significantly less anxious than the anxious pups’ offspring. In other words, not only did maternal affection affect behavioral patterns, but these epigenetic changes appeared to be passed onto future generations.
Behavioral epigenetics refer simply to the effect of the environment on DNA changes in the brain. While studies of identical twins raised in different environments have provided some insight into the impact of environmental differences, some have shown epigenetic differences between twins to be present at birth. However, new biochemical and cellular measures of individual differences have led to a greater understanding of normal development, developmental disorders and psychopathology than previously known.
Epigenetics offer a promising future for the treatment of mental and physical illnesses because they are reversible. Current and future research will likely lead to breakthroughs in the understanding of mental illness, substance abuse, the effects of stress and trauma, and other important issues.
Getting back to the nervous rats, scientists were able to reverse the epigenetic effects of nurturing by injecting drugs to reverse the changes, so the anxious rats relaxed and the relaxed rats became anxious. Providing a stimulating environment also relaxed the anxious rats.
These and other findings reveal that, although genetic composition is fixed, targeted interventions should exist that can reverse epigenetic changes that lead to illness. Drug development that focused on reversing effects of stress and trauma may help psychiatrists treat behavioral disorders through epigenetics. Further insight into epigenetics may also lead to environmental interventions that could improve behavioral health care in the future.
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