WEDNESDAY, Feb. 16 (HealthDay News) -- Children who carry a
variant of a so-called "resilience gene" get along much better with
their troubled parents -- those who have substance abuse, mental
health or criminal problems -- than those without the gene, a new
Assessing 226 children aged 9 to 17, researchers at Duke
University Medical Center said the findings could explain
genetically why some children in problematic families manage to
maintain enjoyable relationships with their parents while others
are blighted by the experience.
The scientists tested the premise that opioids -- naturally
occurring "feel-good" brain chemicals -- help moderate social
interactions in humans. Youngsters with the variant of the
mu-opioid gene receptor were more influenced by the opioids than
typical children, prodding them to create better parent-child
relationships despite strife, lead author William Copeland
"Part of the reason we find relationships so positive and reinforcing is there are endogenous opioids released that affect that," said Copeland, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke. "People who have that variant experience more of that reward."
When these children are in a negative home environment, "there's
almost a withdrawal effect -- so they do what they can to elicit
positive interactions from their parents," Copeland said. "It's
like the brain is saying, 'I used to feel this very positive state,
now I'm not experiencing that anymore and I'd like to get back to
The study is reported in the Feb. 16 online issue of the journal
The mu-opioid receptor gene, known as OPRM1, has previously been
associated with social behaviors in mice and rhesus monkeys. In
Copeland's study, participants underwent DNA tests and answered
questions about their enjoyment of parent-child activities,
arguments and separation anxiety symptoms over the prior three
A measurement of "parental impairment" was derived by choosing
difficulties such as substance abuse, mental health conditions or
criminal problems that would predispose parents to be inconsistent,
impaired or unavailable for relationships with their children.
More than 59 percent of the children had a parent reporting at
least one of these difficulties, according to the study. About
one-third carried the OPRM1 gene variant.
Over a three-month period, children with the variant who lived
in problematic households reported significantly fewer arguments
and far more enjoyable interactions with their parents than did
children without it, although no such association was found in
children who came from stable homes.
"I am generally a skeptic about being able to find these [genetic] markers," Copeland said, noting surprise at his results. "When we make a hypothesis, by no means do we know what the answer is going to be. Otherwise we wouldn't have asked the question."
Robert Plomin, a research professor and deputy director of the
Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Center at King's
College London in England, said it was interesting to learn that
the opioid gene variant is associated with parent-child
relationships only when parents have problems.
"Although it's a plausible finding, we need to be wary because the [study] sample is relatively small, especially when the sample is divided by whether or not parents had problems," Plomin said. "Reports of simple associations such as a gene variant associated with parent-child relations have been notoriously difficult to replicate and this is especially the case when an interaction is reported . . . only for a particular subsample."
Learn more about behavioral genetics from the
Human Genome Project.
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