Social intervention can impact genes

Queensland State Archives 1489 Illustrating activities of Mother and Child Welfare Service April 1950

In a previous post, I discussed how a Swedish study showed the affect of feast or famine on successive generations. A grandfather’s hard childhood can alter a grandchild’s genetic makeup, leaving the child susceptible to problems like obesity or depression.

I speculated that this phenomena was a biological rationale for public services: improving lives and communities now also improves lives and communities in the future. But is there similar research studies that show intervention helps?

Last year, Discover published an article that summarizing the field of epigenetics, the process by which external factors (like feast or famine) affect our genetic makeup. Foundational studies described in the article do show that intervention can help.

Researchers want to prove the attentive or inattentive parenting produced physical changes in the brains of offspring. They worked with rats, of course, selecting and breeding mice moms who were either highly attentive to their offspring or highly inattentive.

After these moms had litters that grew to adulthood, the researchers examined the brains of the adult offspring. Rats reared by inattentive moms found genetic variations that changed their brain chemistry and made them susceptible to stress. Rats reared by attentive moms did not have the same genetic variations.

So far, this is just a type of confirmation of the Swedish study. But then the researchers performed a second experiment. They took rats born to inattentive mothers and gave them to attentive mothers, and vice versa. Upon studying the adult offspring of these mother rats, they again found that rats raise by inattentive mothers had genetic variations that changed their brain chemistry and made the susceptible to stress. And, rats raised by attentive moms did not show the same genetic variations.

Intervention, in this case parenting by someone other than your biological parent, can have an affect on genetics and brain chemistry. But to be clear, I’m not making a direct leap from lab rats to human families and communities, or suggesting that removing children from inattentive parents is a viable answer to social problems.

However, I am taking hope from the fact that studies in epigenetics show that interventions in nurturing, like home visitation for new parents, can influence nature. Because humans are social creatures, we have the ability to nurture each other in our broader communities. To me, this is another proof point that show how equitable treatment of our fellow social beings through public services pays dividends both now and in the future.

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