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Scientific writer/author discuss ‘risk’ alleles
April 17, 2012Tweet
The link between one’s genes and temperament has been evident for decades, but lately many scientists have begun to recognize that the connection between the two is likely more powerful than initially thought.
Though he may not be a scientist himself, David Dobbs is well-versed in the ever-changing field of behavioral genetic research. The best-selling author and scientific writer recently spoke to an audience of more than 50 people at an on-campus seminar hosted by the Evolutionary Studies Program.
Dobbs’ lecture detailed the research behind an innovative genetic theory regarding “risk” alleles, genetic variants found in some people that are thought to increase their vulnerability to negative experiences. The individuals who possess these alleles are much more susceptible to developing mood and behavioral disorders if faced with severely traumatic or stressful situations. Those who don’t possess the “risk” alleles are thought to be more resilient, able to maintain their mentality regardless of experiences.
“These genes are recognized as creating vulnerabilities in us,” Dobbs said. “They determine some of our worst weaknesses and frailties such as depression, melancholy, madness and aggression.”
While past research has concluded that these alleles serve only as a liability, more recent studies have disputed these findings by suggesting that the supposed “risk” variants are far from exclusively harmful. This new hypothesis proposes that, in addition to a heightened vulnerability in negative experiences, the alleles also produce a heightened sensitivity to both positive and negative experiences.
Dobbs explained that although possessing these genetic variants might exacerbate ones weaknesses in an unfavorable circumstance, they are equally as dominant in enhancing ones strengths within a favorable circumstance. If provided with the most idyllic circumstances, individuals with these alleles have the potential to thrive even further than those who don’t have them.
“The genes that determine our weaknesses may also underlie some of our greatest strengths and happiness,” Dobbs said. “Might sensitivity be a springboard as well as a trap door?”
Dobbs will further explore this sensitivity-hypothesis and the connection between genetics and temperament in his upcoming book, “The Dandelion & the Orchid,” in reference to the increasingly widespread “orchid-dandelion” metaphor. The term was originally coined by Thomas Boyce and Bruce Ellis, whose research in child development provided some of the initial insights of the sensitivity-hypothesis.
This metaphor provides a rather simplified explanation to the complexities of behavioral genetic theory, and allows for a more universal understanding of the sensitivity-hypothesis. Dandelions represent the average, or “normal”, children who lack the sensitivity alleles and are therefore quite resilient and secure no matter what their environment might afford them.
“No matter what happens to them, dandelions will turn out about the same,” said Dobbs. “Their environment doesn’t make a big difference — they’ll grow equally in either the crack of the sidewalk, the garden or the greenhouse.”
Orchids, on the other hand, represent the children who have the sensitivity alleles that make them more reactive, their growth easily influenced by their circumstances, thriving in a superior environment, but suffering in an inferior environment.
“Orchids will wither in the cracks of the sidewalk and might possibly grow in the garden, Dobbs said. “But if given just the right environment for them, they will flourish.”
Orchid children have to use their social environment in a way that inspires their strengths. Genes alone don’t truly restrict orchid children, just as environment doesn’t restrict dandelion children. These genetic variants should not be thought of as toxic like they have in the past, because having them does not mean settling for limitations and shortcomings.
Dobbs asserted that despite the fact that it’s still a young and developing theory, the orchid/sensitivity-hypothesis has the potential to challenge the foundations of the psychiatric community, and in turn completely alter the way in which mental dysfunctions are treated.
“All different facets of social structure work to shape the implications and effects of having one of these genetic variants,” Dobbs said. “I think of [these alleles] not as determinates, but as something that colors a conversation that’s going on between your genes and your environment.”