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'Sensitive' Gene Plus Early Stress May Lead to Mental Health Disorders

‘Sensitive’ Gene Plus Early Stress May Lead to Mental Health Disorders

Researchers from Duke University have identified a gene variant linked to extreme sensitivity in children. They found that children with this gene who also live in high-risk environments are far more likely to develop mental health disorders and substance abuse problems as adults.

Prior research has suggested that while some children thrive like dandelions in a variety of environments, others are more like orchids who wither or bloom depending on the circumstance. The new study shows that different levels of sensitivity are linked to differences in genomes.

“The findings are a step toward understanding the biology of what makes a child particularly sensitive to positive and negative environments,” said Dustin Albert, Ph.D., a research scientist at the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy. “This gives us an important clue about some of the children who need help the most.”

For the study, researchers analyzed two decades worth of data on high-risk first-graders from four locations across the country. They found that kids from high-risk backgrounds who also carried the sensitive gene variant (glucocorticoid receptor gene NR3C1) were extremely likely to develop serious problems as adults.

In fact, when left untreated, 75 percent of high-risk children with this gene variant developed psychological problems by age 25, including alcohol abuse, substance abuse, and antisocial personality disorder.

The good news is that these children are very responsive to help as well. Among sensitive, high-risk children who participated in an intensive social-services program called the Fast Track Project, only 18 percent developed psychopathology as adults.

“It’s a hopeful finding,” Albert said. “The children we studied were very susceptible to stress. But far from being doomed, they were instead particularly responsive to help.”

Previous research has linked participation in Fast Track interventions to lower rates of psychiatric problems, substance abuse, and convictions for violent crime in adulthood. For the new study, researchers looked at the biology behind those responses.

Albert said these findings could one day lead toward personalized therapies for some of society’s most troubled children, perhaps matching children with particular programs.

Key questions remain, however, cautioned Albert. First, although the Fast Track Project was offered to children of all races, the benefits appear to be limited to white children. Specifically, the researchers witnessed a strong response to Fast Track among the 60 white children with the sensitive gene variant.

Although children of other ethnicities benefited from Fast Track, the researchers have not yet found a similar genetic clue to help identify which of these children would respond most positively to the program.

“That doesn’t mean such genetic markers don’t exist among children of other races,” Albert said. “We simply don’t know yet what those markers are.”

This is one aspect that will need to be examined in future research, Albert noted, adding that thoughtful examination of the ethical issues involved is needed before the findings can be translated into policy.

“It would be premature to use this finding to screen children to determine who should receive intervention,” Albert said. “A lot more work needs to be done before we decide whether or not to make that leap.”

The study is published in theĀ Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

Source: Duke University

Illness sign photo by shutterstock.

‘Sensitive’ Gene Plus Early Stress May Lead to Mental Health Disorders

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). ‘Sensitive’ Gene Plus Early Stress May Lead to Mental Health Disorders. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 8 Jan 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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