Most people think of genes as static. For most people, genes are things we’re born with that make up the basic programming that cause things–like traits, preferences & disorders–to happen to us. But genes are actually more dynamic than this. They do make up that basic programming that shapes who we are, but they also can be directly impacted by our environment. Some genes can be turned on or turn off because of environmental factors. Some genes make their presence more or less strongly felt because of the things that a person experiences. The study of how environment affects gene expression is called “epigenetics.” When people talk about genes impact on behavior–e.g., depression, anxiety, addiction, homosexuality–they are not really talking about being “born that way” so much as they are discussing the process of epigenetics–how environment causes genes to bring forth certain traits in a person.
Pope St John Paul the Great’s Theology of the Body describes how God’s plan for relationships can be discovered to a large degree by contemplating the design of our bodies. God’s fingerprints are all over his creation. The more particular behaviors, choices, and ways of relating facilitate the health and well-being of a person, the more we can confidently say that those behaviors, choices, and ways of relating reflect God’s intention for us. Parenting, more and more, is being shown to have a powerful impact on the way genes are expressed. Two new studies demonstrate this relationship in a powerful way. Take a look.
1. Maltreatment Impacts Genes Associated with Social Functioning
…researchers found an association between the kind of parenting children had and a particular gene (called the glucocorticoid receptor gene) that’s responsible for crucial aspects of social functioning and health. Not all genes are active at all times. DNA methylation is one of several biochemical mechanisms that cells use to control whether genes are turned on or off. The researchers examined DNA methylation in the blood of 56 children ages 11 to 14. Half of the children had been physically abused.
They found that compared to the children who hadn’t been maltreated, the maltreated children had increased methylation on several sites of the glucocorticoid receptor gene, also known as NR3C1, echoing the findings of earlier studies of rodents. In this study, the effect occurred on the section of the gene that’s critical for nerve growth factor, which is an important part of healthy brain development.
There were no differences in the genes that the children were born with, the study found; instead, the differences were seen in the extent to which the genes had been turned on or off. “This link between early life stress and changes in genes may uncover how early childhood experiences get under the skin and confer lifelong risk,” notes Seth D. Pollak, professor of psychology and pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who directed the study.
Previous studies have shown that children who have experienced physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect are more likely to develop mood, anxiety, and aggressive disorders, as well as to have problems regulating their emotions. These problems, in turn, can disrupt relationships and affect school performance. Maltreated children are also at risk for chronic health problems such as cardiac disease and cancer. The current study helps explain why these childhood experiences can affect health years later. READ MORE
2. Attachment and Genetics of Long Term Health
Tulane University psychiatrist Dr. Stacy Drury has been given $2.4 million by the National Institutes of Health to test a provocative new theory — how well children bond with a parent in the first year of life leaves lasting genetic protection, potentially shielding them from disease risks well into adulthood.Drury, a geneticist, is a pioneer in new research exploring the biological impacts of early adversity on children. She is the first scientist to show that extreme stress in infancy can biologically age a child by shortening the tips of chromosomes, known as telomeres. These caps keep chromosomes from shrinking when cells replicate. Shorter telomeres are linked to higher risks for heart disease, cognitive decline, diabetes and mental illness in adults.
“Telomeres are clearly a marker of the aging process, but they are increasingly being linked to stress,” says Drury, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the Behavioral and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Laboratory at Tulane University School of Medicine. “And what this suggests is that we have a marker that is in a cell that is sort of tracking the lasting impact of these negative early life experiences.”
…She and Tulane scientists are recruiting 500 pregnant women to see if a responsive and sensitive parental bond can create a “biological buffer” in children that protects against telomere shortening and toxic stress. The Tulane Infant Development Study will be the first to document what happens physiologically before and after infants develop “attachment,” the all-important bond with mothers or primary caregivers. READ MORE
Again and again, we see that the strength of the bond between parent and child determines so much. If parents listen to the way God has designed their own and their child’s body to function at its best, it becomes clear that, prompt attention to needs and a deep, intimate loving connection combined with gentle discipline is truly how God intends parents to relate to their children. If you would like to learn how the Theology of the Body can help you become the parent God is calling you to be, check out Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.