There was a fascinating article that recently showed up on NBC News.com on June 2. It dealt with the overarching concept of resiliency possibly being rooted in childhood, and featured some survivor stories of recent tragedies of natural disasters. It presented that some people did well; others less so.
The article nicely brought a mental health issue with the potential to affect us all one step closer to the general public. As well, though, it pointed toward something fascinating — that in terms of causalities of mental health and illness, there is “nature and nurture” and then there is something else.
“Nature” widely has been understood to be our genetics; “nurture” our early life experiences. Human behavior has been catchphrased as shaped by these two for centuries.
But then there is brain chemistry. The genetics category, you say? Not so fast. Apparently it can be altered by early formative experience.
Here’s the summary:
Scientists are just now beginning to understand how traumatic early-life experiences can alter how genes are expressed. A developing field of study, known as epigenetics, examines how environmental factors like stress and parental attachment can turn genes regulating the brain’s stress response system on or off.
So writes Rebecca Ruiz, the author of this extensive article that offered much more than mere human interest element and peek into resiliency. She is a NBC News contributor and reporter who was able to research her subjects (tragedy survivors and scientists both) and produce her findings with the support of a Rosalyn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism.
Ruiz states, “Emerging research on the biology of resilience” (that elusive ability to “bounce back” and move fluently through transition) “…suggests [that] a person’s ability to recover – or risk spiraling into depression” — depends not on the nature/nurture axis alone, but indeed “on an elusive combination of early life experiences, genetics and brain chemistry,” all.
This more than suggests brain chemistry is starting to be seen as a third spoke, mitigated by what our ancestors gave us but also what our early family life was like. For example, the brain genetically predestined to be in a normal range of stress functioning might organically be newly molded, negatively, by the happenings under the roof of one’s family home. Or vice-versa, a genetic proclivity toward mental illness within the actual brain structure might be structurally tempered by a nurturing home-life with adults who physically express love and model effective coping strategies toward stress.
The work of Dr. Tallie Z. Baram, a neurobiologist at University of California, Irvine, is presented in Ruiz’s article.
[Baram] has studied how resiliency or vulnerability is shaped in early life. She has found that consistent nurturing parental care in rodents silences a gene that activates a key part of the body’s stress response system. ‘If the gene is repressed, that lowers your gear or the rev, so you are less sensitive to stress and therefore less vulnerable to stress-related disorders,’ Baram said.
Ruiz’s reporting concludes, for now, that “[I]t’s not yet possible… to detect these changes in the brains of patients. Scientists at the National Institute of Mental Health are developing brain-imaging technologies to visualize the chemical markers that attach to genes, but there is not yet a practical biomarker or tool that could be used in a clinical setting.” But research (and likely Ruiz’s continued scholarship and reportage) should provide hope for individuals looking for advancements in mental health.
Think early life experiences shaping brain chemistry is provocative? Look for the second in this two-part series, dealing with brain chemistry as altered by later life experiences.