I was so happy at 2:30 PM on Monday afternoon. I had stayed up until 3 AM the night before watching pointless youtube videos and had been exhausted all morning. The lab for my Molecular Biology course is scheduled to get out at 4 PM on Mondays, but today’s lab was short. I had completed the procedure and was ready to go home and take a nap. You could imagine my dismay, then, when my TA announced that instead of going home early, we were going to watch “The Ghost in Your Genes,” a “science-ey” documentary about gene expression. We all grumbled and sat back in our chairs as our TA turned the lights off and put the movie on. I worried that I was going to have difficulty staying awake during the documentary. This could not have been farther from the truth.
From the beginning of the film, I was absolutely enthralled. The documentary discussed the emerging field of Epigenetics – the “study of heritable changes in phenotype (appearance) or gene expression caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence.” Based on their environment, some genes within the genetic code of an individual are expressed, whereas others are suppressed. According to epigeneticists, organisms can inherit behavioral traits of their parents. In layman’s terms, epigenetics is the study of how genes have memories.
We have known for a while that we all have genes that we do not express for various environmental factors. For example, as discussed in the documentary, offspring who receive love and care from their parents at a young age express genes that make them capable of reacting well when put in stressful situations. However, the traditional belief has been that as long as a person still has these genes, he can pass them off to his offspring, even if they were not expressed during his lifetime. Expounding upon my first example, just because people did not receive enough love and affection as a child and now do not express certain genes, they can still pass these genes on to their children.
The interesting part of the documentary was that it contradicted a widely held belief that people do not inherit their parents’ traits just because of environmental factors in the parents’ lifetimes. Research suggests that the environmental impact on genes is transgenerational. For example, an epidemiologist and geneticist collaborated to discover that the grandchildren of Swedish grandparents born during a famine were less likely to have diabetes than grandchildren of grandparents who were born when there was no famine. It seems as if these grandchildren inherited certain genes based on the environment of the grandfather.
You may be wondering why I am rambling on and on about molecular biology on a blog post that is supposed to be geared towards addressing mental health concerns. I think that a lot of the information in the documentary is actually very relevant to how we address certain mental health issues. It suggests that a parent’s nurturing can not only affect the nature of a child but also change the child’s and all subsequent generation’s nature. By treating our bodies poorly or by treating our children poorly, we can mess up some of their genes and some of their children’s genes.
This data suggests that there is huge weight on our shoulders. As Uncle Ben incessantly reminded Spiderman, “with great power comes great responsibility.” People often face depression as a result of childhood stress. If parents do not relieve some of this stress, or in some cases, even add to it, a whole generation could theoretically have a disproportionate risk of many neuropsychiatric conditions (such as depression) or even physical conditions (such as diabetes). The responsibility that comes with becoming a parent is already huge. The ability to negatively change the gene pool heightens this responsibility. These responsibilities suggest that people should only become parents if they want to take on this burden.
Armed with this new knowledge, parents must be careful when they decide to have a child. They must realize that the implications of such a decision are far-reaching. Their rearing of a child will not only effect the child’s life but also the lives of future generations.
This documentary reminds us of something we already know. We should take care of ourselves. By making good decisions in regards to our own health, we will be better off, and our family members and friends will be enthralled. These new findings suggest that how we treat ourselves can affect how well off our children are, and how we treat our children can affect our lineage. Remember your power and remember your responsibility.Shaunak Varma is a Program and Research Intern with the SISGI Group focusing on mental health. To learn more about the SISGI Group visit www.sisgigroup.org.