WEDNESDAY, June 8 (HealthDay News) -- A new twist has been
thrown into the classic debate of "nature versus nurture" through
the budding field of epigenetics, which has found that nurture can
alter the genetic nature of both an individual and the person's
Epigenetics researchers investigate the ways that environmental
factors -- pollution, emotional stress, physical trauma -- can
affect the way people's genetic blueprint is expressed through
their physical and emotional development.
"Decades ago, we looked at genes as being the hard-wired plan for how the body develops and functions," said Dr. Steven Dowshen, chief medical editor of KidsHealth at the Nemours Center for Children's Health Media and a pediatric endocrinologist with the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del. "That still is the case. However, we didn't understand until we knew more about this concept of epigenetics how environmental factors can change how those genes work."
Doctors studying epigenetics also have found evidence that a
person's current environment can affect the health of their
progeny, with today's events echoing decades down the family
The word "epigenetics" provides a clue to the concept, as the
Greek prefix "epi" means "over" or "above." Researchers have found
that environmental factors essentially can flip an on or off switch
in a person's genetics, affecting not only that person's
development but also how genetics are transmitted in the person's
eggs or sperm.
"Epigenetic mechanisms don't alter the actual DNA structure, but they do alter the DNA molecule in a way that modifies the amount of biologic information that will be transmitted by the gene," said Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry and neurobiology and director of the traumatic stress studies division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. "Imagine if you're listening to beautiful music and somebody mutes it. The music might still be playing, but it won't be heard. Or you can amplify that music."
Evidence of an epigenetic influence on human health and
development include studies that found:
Epigenetic effects aren't necessarily generational, however.
There is evidence that trauma and stress may affect a person's
psychological health by fiddling with the genetics that regulate
body chemicals, Yehuda said.
"We think that epigenetics may be very informative in helping us understand why environmental events like trauma may be so transformative," she said. "When people undergo watershed life events, they say they are changed by them. What does that mean? This might help explain that."
The medical benefits of an epigenetic view of health and human
development are not some pie-in-the-sky notion. Doctors already are
putting this view of genetics to work in the treatment of
"We're probably using epigenetics already in, for example, giving folic acid to pregnant women to prevent neural tube defects that cause spina bifida," Dowshen said. Folic acid influences the way a woman's DNA is expressed in her offspring, reducing the chances of the baby developing the devastating birth defect.
Epigenetics also have led doctors to encourage pregnant women to
eat well, avoid alcohol and smoking, and eliminate as much stress
as possible in their environment, he added.
In the future, findings from epigenetic studies could uncover
ways to treat depression, cancer and much more by manipulating a
person's genetics, Dowshen and Yehuda said.
"When treating depression, instead of treating the chemicals that flow through our neurons using antidepressants, we might be able to tackle more immediate causes for these chemical imbalances," Yehuda said.
People with a family history of cancer may be able to avoid
developing the disease through epigenetic therapies that inhibit
the expression of cancer-causing genes, Dowshen said. Manipulation
of those genes might even lead to a cure for cancer one day.
In the meantime, epigenetics experts say, people today should
realize that the lifestyle they lead will affect not only their own
health but will probably have an impact on their children and
grandchildren as well.
"Environmental factors like eating a healthy diet and physical activity and exercise are very likely influencing not just that individual but several generations emanating from them," Dowshen said. "It's likely that leading a healthy lifestyle will turn out to be understood to have some very direct effects on subsequent generations."
The Nemours Foundation has more on
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