Last year, I was quite taken by news reports that physicists had managed to identify the Higgs Boson. This extremely miniscule and elusive particle was finally revealed, which left scientists around the world cheering and the rest of us scratching our heads wondering what was going on.
It is quite common for the media to report on the latest scientific breakthroughs. However, almost every time it is difficult for news agencies to not only explain in simple terms what it means but also if there is any practical applications to these findings. This is especially so in the area of psychological research. However, just as in other disciplines, science and technology are making extraordinary breakthroughs. For today’s blog I thought I would go through some cutting-edge areas of psychological research and attempt to explain exactly what is happening, and what the practical applications of this work might be.
Ever since scientists unlocked DNA as the biological source code behind making us who we are, work has been done exploring the map of our genes, or units of DNA that determine specific traits we share. These traits determine everything from eye colour to the specific functioning the cells we are made of. Scientists are poring through our genetic data for evidence of what makes some of us more or less likely to develop medical conditions, from deafness to breast cancer and everything in between. This kind of work is painstakingly difficult, as there are approximately 20,000 genes to sort through for the tiniest of variations.
In the past, we were only able to sort through a handful of genes at a time. And recently, we’ve discovered that disorders of our brain, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are way more genetically complex than a couple of slight code variations on 1 of 20,000 genes. Rather, there are possibly hundreds of slight variations across all those genes. The good news is that increases in technology have enabled us to scan the whole gene collection (referred to as our ‘genome’) at once. These so-called ‘Genome Wide Association Studies’ are much more powerful than what we could do before. As a result, we’re picking up on more variations and smaller variations than was possible in the past.
Why is this important?
Interestingly, the variations that are coming to the fore specifically relate to how individual cells work in our brain. For disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, research has shown both of these to be highly genetically based disorders. The more we understand these little differences, the more we can begin to understand what cells and chemical processes are working differently to cause these disorders. Furthermore, we’ll potentially be able to target drugs towards these specific chemical processes. This is a big deal, as current treatments for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are fickle in their response, and tend to have wide-ranging side effects that can sometimes be as medically damaging as the illness itself.
You might be thinking that’s a typo but Epigenetics is a very new area of scientific exploration, and it has to do with the interaction between genes and our environment. In the past, lots of studies have been done on monozygotic (identical) twins, because they share 100% of the same genes. If our development was purely either genetically based or environmentally based, we’d expect twins to either share all illnesses or have no illnesses in common. However, the truth lies in the middle. A recent comparison of lots of schizophrenia twin studies revealed the chance of both twins getting the illness to be between 75-90%. For a very genetically-based illness, that still leaves up to 25% of the likelihood determined by other environmental factors.
Our DNA is the code in our genes that determines our development and functioning, and there are chemical processes that take this code and ‘read’ it out, determining how our cells grow and function. Recent research is now suggesting that certain aspects of our environment can change the chemical processes behind this code-reading. For example, it has long been established that early life stress can increase the risk of later depression. Now research is suggesting that not only does stress impact the brain, it impacts the genes in our brain cells, affecting how they grow and develop, as well as how they function.
Why is this important?
Aside from the confirmation that we are not just a product of our genes or environment, Epigenetics is opening up completely new avenues of scientific exploration. Once we know the risk of illness present in our genes, we can start to tailor treatments towards managing environmental factors that could interact with the genes. This has the potential to make major breakthroughs in the area of psychological illness prevention.
I’ll bet many of you reading this have had an MRI scan. It’s when you are placed in a narrow metal tube, part of a gigantic machine, that takes pictures of your arm, leg, head, whatever the doctor’s are interested in. It’s big, loud and generally unpleasant. But it’s also part of a revolution in the world of brain science.
There is a similar type of brain scanning called functional MRI (fMRI). It’s the same as a regular MRI, but it enables researchers to measure localised brain activity in the present moment. Suppose you sat in one of these machines and read words on a screen. Each word will correspond with a whole bunch of electrical impulses in your brain, and an fMRI scan can pick up exactly what parts of the brain are involved. It’s almost as if we have a window into the brain as it is actually working.
The great thing about this type of research is that it opens up so many areas we otherwise would not have been able to explore. Not only can we see how specific tasks, thoughts, emotions etc. look in the brain, we can also compare these across different populations. We can for example, look at how the brain of a depressed person is working compared to someone who is not depressed. It’s well established that seeing others experience emotions can trigger the same emotions in ourselves. A recent fMRI study was able to show which specific brain cells were active in that process, which we have now termed mirror neurons. This has major implications for our understanding of not only how we show empathy, but also how we learn from others, a skill that is vitally important in children’s growth and development.
Why is this important?
When it comes to mental illness and mental health, the more we know at a miniscule level about how the brain is working, the more we can discover how to address those issues and develop new treatments, both pharmaceutical and psychological. It also allows us to develop early intervention and prevention strategies to stop issues at an earlier stage.
Science and technology are taking our understanding of the brain to levels never previously heard of. Like the Higgs Boson, perhaps the applications of our knowledge is a long way off. But progress is continuing just the same. And every brain scan, genetics or epigenetics study that someday makes the news is an exciting step towards that future.
Labonte, B. & Turecki, G. The Epigenetics of Depression and Suicide. In A. Petronis and J. Mill (eds.), Brain, Behavior and Epigenetics, Epigenetics and Human Health, Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2011
Sullivan, P.F, Kendler, K. & Neale, M.C. (2003). Schizophrenia as a complex trait: Evidence from a meta-analysis of twin studies. JAMA Psychiatry; 60:12;
Vingnemont, F. & Singer, T. (2006). The empathic brain: How, when and why. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 10:10
Sklar et al., (2011). Large-scale genome-wide association analysis of bipolar disorder identifies a new susceptibility locus near ODZ4. Nature Genetics 43(10); 977-983