Nature vs Nurture: The Role of Epigenetics

Genetics is pretty cool. Its complexity is mind-boggling and the study of it is at the forefront of science. The fact that a combination of four nucleotide bases (adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine) that makes up our DNA creates an enormously dense genetic code, leading to the makeup of every single cell in the human body is simple amazing. But can each person be categorized by their “code”? The answer to this question is that it is much more complex that we can even imagine. Aside from the “code”, environmental factors have an enormous impact on how these genes are coded for and expressed. The hot field of epigenetics attempts to answer these questions. What we know is that the genetic code is susceptible to the factors of epigenetics, which include DNA methylation, chromatin remodeling, and micro-RNAs. These processes can greatly effect gene functioning, regulation and thus their expression, permanently changing an individual. Psychological stresses and traumatic events during childhood can lead to permanent changes in DNA, which leads to permanent results one the DNA is coded for a proteins are made.

It would nice to if every human had a code that could be broken down and used to explain their inner workings as well as psychological processes, but the fact is that environmental influences can have an enormous effect on the genetic codes themselves. Very interesting stuff when considering the “nature vs nuture” debate, and how we have come to be who we are.

“Puppy-dog Eyes”-Who’s domesticating who?

This article by John Hartigan examines the science of the loving and adorable “puppy-dog eyes” that dogs often give to their owners in times of want or guilt. He shows that the gazing of dogs into the eyes of their owners has an impact on both parties, eliciting a strong release of oxytocin for both species. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that is greatly released during times of affection, often towards loved ones. He states that it seems dogs have “hijacked the human bonding pathway” in the fact that they have adapted to the human means of communication. It is no doubt that eye-contact is extremely important in human communication and interaction, present even at very early ages of infancy. He argues that this was a crucial trait in dogs that lead to their strong domestication by humans- the fact that dogs are considered “man’s best friend”, and widely popular in the world. It seems as if they have evolutionarily found a way into the good graces of humans by using the psychological “cuteness” channel that we have for children. When pondering the fact that dogs often do this when they have done something wrong may be another story though. Research has shown that dogs are extremely sensitive to environmental and social cues, so this behavior might be effective in the owners withholding punishment that they can feel may be coming, even though they don’t necessarily know what they did wrong. So in the grand scheme of things it is interesting to view this from an anthropological perspective: who’s domesticating who?

Love and the Brain

This article by Erin B. Taylor is a review of a TED talk given by anthropologist Helen Fisher in which she talks about the brain and its activity during love, or the downfall of it. As to be expected, she states that love is experienced in many parts of the brain, from higher cognitive processes to very basic areas of the brain. One of these areas is the ventral tegmental area, which is part of the “reptilian” brain, that is considered to be one of the earliest evolved areas of the brain, functioning for basic survival needs, not higher order thinking. The ventral tegmental area is responsible for the release of the dopamine neurotransmitter, which is the same neurotransmitter released during a cocaine high. To study the brain and the effect of love, her team conducted an MRI study of people that had been recently “dumped” from long relationships. She found that three centers were primarily activated. The first area is the area the same area that is activated during intense love, but in fact after a breakup it becomes more active, perhaps explaining why it is difficult to let go of. The second area is the “risk calculator” region, perhaps one is running through the ideas of what they did wrong, how they could have fixed it? The third region is associated with deep attachment, which makes perfect sense. To summarize, love is an extremely powerful thing that effects our brain greatly. Love is an addiction, “the God of Love lives in a state of need”.

Is MRI Imaging the Answer for Diagnosing Mental Illnesses?

Daniel Lende’s article “Common Brain Mechanisms in Mental Illness” discusses in detail the neurological brain areas that are commonly associated with mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, depression, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and schizophrenia. The company, JAMA Psychiatry, whom did MRI imaging of 7,381 individuals that fall into this category conducted the study he outlines.

They specifically focused on the areas called the dorsal anterior cingulate, right insula and left insula. These areas are used for higher-order processing in things like concentrating in the face of distraction, multitasking, planning, decision-making and inhibitions.

The study found that people that fall under those categories of mental illness have gray matter loss in those certain brain areas, compared to healthy individuals. To me, does this conclude that these areas are certainly responsible for these mental illnesses? Although this evidence seems convincing, it is still tough to say. There could be any number of factors that could lead to these illnesses, including genetics.

Has our medical society come too depended on the somewhat new science of MRI technology? Some would argue that it is new age phrenology, searching for areas associated with brain disorders, and blindly assigning brain areas specific meanings. Regardless, there is no doubt that fMRI imaging holds its water, but it will be very interesting to see where it goes in the future.

ADHD Medication for Children: Are the benefits worth it?

In this article Kaitlin Barnett weighs in on the prescription of stimulants to children diagnosed with ADHD. Since the heavy onset of these drugs to children in the 1980s, this has been a hotly debated topic for years. We often hear about the views of parents having children that are medicated, as well as from young adults whom look back on their childhood everyday medication and how it made them feel. There are the obvious concerns: is medication being overprescribed? Is it changing children’s personalities? Effecting physical and psychological development?

One group of people that we don’t often hear from are the children themselves. A study conducted by bioethicists Ilina Singh addresses this. She interviewed 151 American children ages 9-14 asking them questions like, “Does taking your medication make you feel like a different person?” The overall consensus from the kids was that it changed their behavior but not their personality. Many of them also mentioned that they appreciated the fact that it allowed them to “stop and think” before making rash decisions. To them it seemed that the stimulants didn’t change their personalities, thus, their identity.

But are they really at an age and level of development where they can have proper insight to these issues? Most children admitted that they didn’t even know what ADHD means or why they are even taking the medication.

Barnett seems to think that the positives outweigh the negatives and that overall, anthropologists agree on this.

The Vilification of Steroids in Sports: Baseball vs Football


In Greg Downey’s article, he discussed the history of the “Roid Age” as well as giving a brief history of doping. In an era of professional athletes making millions of dollars and being viewed as hero’s, it is obvious that they are striving for every possible advantage. Even with all the so many resources being put into professional sports, it is often a struggle to find out who is performing under “normal” body conditions and who is not.

Even people who are not sports fans cannot escape the drama of accusations and trials of athletes as it is displayed in the media very often, most often with baseball players. Why is it that when baseball players are accused of doping it is national news but when football players are caught it is back page news, often times not even heard about by avid sports fans like myself.

Dayn Perry argues that is it the nature of the sports that make this happen. In America baseball has a nostalgic,magical feeling with so much history linked to the legends of Babe Ruth and others, after all, it is our national pastime, right? Aside from the athleticism and sportsmanship in football, there is no denying that it is entertainment through violence with a “gladiatorial nature”. We like to see players make powerful violent hits. Also, football is much less of an individual sport.

Baseball is much more focused on the individual; one hitter, one pitcher, with so much weight given to individual record and accomplishments. When Barry Bonds, the poster boy of steroids breaks the all-time home run records of the legends like Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, people care. It has even led to investigations by the United States government.

This hatred for steroids in baseball is clearly driven by our societies media attention to it, as well as the perception of baseball as a “pure sport”.