Written by Cathi Spooner, LCSW, RPT/S
As a mental health professional, I love learning about the relationship between neuroscience, behavior, and relationships. This information has helped me to be a more effective and compassionate therapist, especially when working with children and teens who’ve experienced trauma and attachment difficulties. Attachment effects so many aspects of our mental health. Research on the long-term effects of trauma has helped mental health and medical professionals recognize the importance of treating trauma early in life. I first heard about the field of epigenetics while working as a therapist at a residential treatment program that specializes in helping adopted teens and their families heal. Many of the teens I worked with in residential treatment had histories of trauma and attachment wounds. Since I’m a psychotherapy nerd (and proud of my self-proclaimed title), I was intrigued about this area of science and how it was relevant to the mental health field.
First, a definition of epigenetics to explain the concept that will aid in understanding this fascinating and emerging area of science in the mental health world. According to dictionary.com, epigenetics is defined as:
“the study of the process by which genetic information is translated into the substance and behavior of an organism: specifically, the study of the way in which the expression of heritable traits is modified by environmental influences or other mechanisms without a change to the DNA sequence. “
Essentially, the research of epigenetics seeks to better understand and explain the nature vs. nurture question and redefine this age-old question.
Let me “nerd out” for a bit more – hang in there if you get overwhelmed like I do with a lot of technical science explanations. In a nutshell, our genetic make-up is expressed through our phenotypes- i.e. which gene expressions are evident. For example, our hair color, eye color, and height are all examples of which phenotypes are manifested and evident. Our genes consist of many options (so to speak), such as we have the genotypes for both straight and curly hair, but we will predominately have either straight or curly hair depending on which one was expressed (phenotype).
Okay, why does that matter when we’re talking about mental health? Scientists have been exploring the generational impact of a variety of mental health and cognitive issues, and how genetic expression might be influenced by events (environmental influence) that happened in one generation and may potentially impact future generations who have not had the same experiences. This is where the nature vs nurture question comes in. Let’s say one’s grandmother struggled with an addiction to alcohol and this grandmother had two children, Jane and Thomas. Neither Thomas nor Jane developed an addiction and yet, Thomas’s child developed an addiction during adolescence. The science of epigenetics seeks to explore the interaction between the nature and nurture aspect of why Thomas’s child developed an addiction even though his child did not grow up in a home where there was a parent with an addiction (nurture). Harper (2005) stated that the problem of viewing “genes and environments as essentially separate contributors to ontogeny, thereby failing to consider the complex ways in which they coact to lead to development of the individual” (p.340). This new way of thinking moves professionals away from explaining phenomenon as either nature or nurture and moving toward understanding humans from a nature and nurture perspective.
With advances in the 21st century in the fields of genetics and neuropsychology, scientists are increasing their ability to study in more depth the overlap between these two fields and are seeking to better understand how genetics may be influenced by one’s environment. Epigenetics seeks to better understand the interaction between nature and nurture to explore this relationship across generations with the underlying recognition that our genes are influenced by the interaction between one’s genes and one’s environment. It’s a complex phenomenon for sure. Kremen, Panizzon, and Cannon (2016) assert that there is “overwhelming evidence that genes play a major role in brain structure and function. As such it is our view that in the 21st century there needs to be a stronger integration of genomics and neuropsychology” (p. 1). The authors speculate that the study of epigenetics can help to better individualize treatment for individuals as their genomic differences are better understood. Think about the relevance of this for psychiatry and medication! This has the potential to significantly decrease the trial and error process for finding effective medication to treat any number of mental health disorders specifically on an individual basis.
One area of study where epigenetics is showing promise – is the study of trauma and the impact of trauma across generations. This is an exciting area of study for trauma professionals. I’ll be discussing this in future blog posts.
Dictionary.com at www.dictionary.com
Harper, L. V. (2005). Epigenetic inheritance and intergenerational transfer of experience. Psychological Bulletin, 131(3), 340-360. doi.10.1037/0033-2909.131.3.340
Kremen. W. S., Panizzon, M. S., and Cannon, T. D. (2016). Genetics and Neuropsychology: A merger whose time has come. Neuropsychology, 30(1), 1-5. doi.10.1037/neu0000254