Epigenetics News

Epigenetics study links poverty and mental illness

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From Sara Reardon at Nature News:

Children from impoverished families are more prone to mental illness, and alterations in DNA structure could be to blame, according to a study published on 24 May in Molecular Psychiatry

The scientists found that children who grew up in poverty had more methylation in this region [SLC6A4 gene] compared to their wealthier peers. This might have suppressed the poor children’s production of serotonin transporter protein, so that they had less serotonin available to the brain — a condition linked to depression. The children’s amygdalas also became more active, and those who had a family history of depression were more likely to become depressed themselves.

But of course there may be a huge tangle of causes and effects here.

Seth Pollak, a child psychologist at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, says that it is unclear whether poverty harms cognition and mental health, or whether a person’s intrinsic biology increases the likelihood that he or she will be poor as adults. But epigenetic research, such as the new study, shows that genetic differences are not the only important factors. “You might have a particular gene — but depending on the experience you have or don’t have, the gene might never be turned on,” Pollak says. More.

Epigenetics is likely to prove a fruitful but immensely complex undertaking, and critics are right to warn about using it as a Big Explain. For one thing, in the developed world, “poverty” does not usually mean lack of the basic necessities of life. It more often means growing up with a revolving door of adult authority figures and irresolvable conflicts between learned values and those rewarded by society. Hence, a type of stress not usually experienced by middle-class children. It will be most interesting to see whether that affects genes, going forward.

But at least we have put genetic determinism behind us, and that’s something. Here’s the study, (public access) .

See also: Epigenetics is “dangerously fashionable”

There’s a gene for that… or is there?


Epigenetic change: Lamarck, wake up, you’re wanted in the conference room!

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2 Replies to “Epigenetics study links poverty and mental illness

  1. 1
    Robert Byers says:

    Its stupid. Poverty is a reflection of dumber and badder people in general. Such people would, and should, draw conclusions about hopelessness etc and so be depressed.
    genes might make failure more likely but depression etc is a function of memory interference. Something has got stuck in the memory. Depression is just another phobia. Same equation.
    If depression is part of human conclusions then it would be that poverty people would be morte depressed. No need for gene alchemy.

  2. 2
    Andre says:

    Seems to me sombody wants to use epigenetics to justify eugenics.

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