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The science of epigenetics is relatively new, but what has been discovered so far is fascinating and relevant to all of us.
Epigenetics holds clues as to why some of us have so much difficulty letting go of the past or stopping behaviors that we know do not serve us well. It can help us understand why some people are more prone to mood disorders or stress-related disorders than others.
This science also emphasizes the importance of good child care. It reaffirms that the way children are treated has lifelong health and behavior consequences.
Epigenetics is, partly, the study of compounds that can attach themselves to our DNA and RNA, and change their expression. The compounds do not change our genetic makeup, but they alter the way our genes show up in our body or behavior.
One of these attaching compounds is a methyl group made of a carbon atom bonded to three hydrogen atoms. Methyls have an affinity for cytosine, one of the four bases that join to form our DNA. When methyls attach themselves to cytosine our DNA is said to be methylated, changing the activity of those genes involved.
Behavioral epigenetics focuses on the mood and behavioral expressions of methylated genes. Studies have found that individuals who go through a traumatic event can carry the memory of it with them as a “methyl scar.” The scar might become part of the genetic information passed onto the next generation, and the next.
If your great-grandparents or your grandparents suffered through the depression of the 1930s or survived a Jewish labor camp during WWII, it is possible their DNA was methylated by the experience. That epigenetic methyl material could have been passed on to some of their descendants. However, whatever genetic material we inherit is mediated by the kind of attention we receive as children.
Epigeneticists studied adult rats of both highly attentive rat moms (provide much licking and cuddling) and inattentive ones. In the brains of rats raised by inattentive moms, the researchers found the genes that controlled the manufacture of glucocorticoid receptors were slimed with methyls. Because glucocorticoid receptors regulate an individual’s sensitivity to stress hormones, these rat pups had grown up to be adult nervous-Nellies.
The researchers did the study a second time, switching the rat litters right after birth. They gave the loving mom’s litter to the inattentive rat mother, and the neglectful mother’s pups to the attentive mom. Again, those raised by the inattentive rat mom were genetically dusted with methyls and became anxious adults. The adults raised by the affectionate mother grew up calm and confident.
Researchers that study methylation and mothering say the lesson to take away from the research is to not worry continuously about whether you are doing things right, but to give your babies and young children truckloads of tactile interaction. Being touched affectionately is exceedingly important for the developing brain.
There may be drugs available in the future that can rinse away our methyl debris, freeing us from their effects. Naturally, one concern is making sure that such a drug does not wash away more than the meddling methyls.
Another question is whether people will want to take this drug. Imagine if you could instantly wipe away all of the problematic behavioral residue from your brain. The thought of doing this will cause some people to wonder who they will be after a methyl-cleansing or what might be expected of them.
Source: Discover Magazine
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