Overcoming Genetic Indications for Psychological Syndromes

A GoodTherapy.org News Update

As medical science progresses into the twenty-first century and new, incredible breakthroughs abound, it can be tempting to suppose that our biology as humans is a reigning force in our lives. And in many ways, it is. Within the realm of genetics, we are finding that some people are, in a sense, “pre-determined” for developing various ailments, and mental health issues are no exception. Yet it is not necessarily the case that we are powerless over our health in areas where genetics have a role to play. Quite the contrary, as evidenced by a new study focusing on high-risk individuals for depression and anxiety disorders, as well as alcohol and substance abuse.

The study responsible for this victory, headed by John Capitanio, Ph.D., appears in the May issue of Biological Psychiatry and sheds new light on the nature versus nurture debate, reminding us that the truth may again rest somewhere between these two poles. Capitanio and his team worked with a population of monkeys, first identifying which infants among them were genetically “tagged” for anxious or depressive behaviors. Studying the monkeys within a set of four different upbringing environments, including large and small social groups and dynamics that encompassed nurturing and neglectful or abusive patterns, the researchers put this genetic predisposition to the test.

Results were strongly in favor of the idea that complex, open, and nurturing environments were a stronger determining factor in the appearance of mental disorder symptoms than were genetics. Monkeys tagged as having a high genetic risk for anxious, depressive, addictive, or abusive behaviors did not exhibit symptoms when reared in an environment that promoted positive and healthy behavior. While these results encourage hope for overcoming genetic setbacks in mental health, the researchers note that some social aspects of upbringing can subtly interrupt the benefits of a nurturing environment; though delivering positive news, the study thus also calls for more extensive research.

© Copyright 2009 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • janice


    May 8th, 2009 at 8:12 AM

    This does bring a a little hope to persons that has a history of genetic illnesses and ailments. It’s good to see this study done so persons with families who deal with those have a little hope that it is not passed down the family line.

  • amanda


    May 8th, 2009 at 8:15 AM

    I agree a little that it’s not 100 percent guaranteed that the illnesses are genetic if brought up in positive environment. But it goes to say that if we live positive and think positive, then maybe there is hope for us who have families with these problems

  • Patrick


    May 10th, 2009 at 12:02 PM

    I have always thought that your genetic background could just be too difficult to overcome but it is such a positive thing to note that there is still hope for doing just that. I have always tended to err toward the opinion of nature over nurture but new studies are coming along everyday that seem to disprove that just a little bit more all of the time. Perhaps it is time to really rethink my beliefs and give a little more credence where before I have not. And that is what I like so much about many of the articles and the blogs that I find here. They force me to take a new look at things I have thought about only in a certain way for years and get me to reevaluate and sometimes even change my mind. And that feels good sometimes to not be so rigid and set in stone.

  • Jean


    May 11th, 2009 at 4:27 AM

    Too many times kids are labeled in school as underachievers and guess what? That is what they end up becoming. I do not like this process of labeling in any part of our lives because it almost does become like a self fulfilling prophecy. If people tell you enough that you are or are not something, then that is exactly what you will come to believe and will probably become. So I think that a good strong nurturing environment is what one needs, not a diagnosis of problems before they even arise. Not burying my head in the sand, but there are just some things that really do not need to be addressed until they arise.

  • Vicki


    May 12th, 2009 at 3:40 AM

    Do you think that maybe overcoming the genetic role is simply too much for some people to fight? Not only do they have the genes but they have the added disaster that this was the way they were raised so they have to overcome both things at the same time. I just do not know how anyone could possibly be able to get past any of that on their own. Seems daunting to me.

  • Bonnie


    May 14th, 2009 at 3:03 AM

    I am a firm believer that anyone can achieve what they so desire. Jean is correct. You keep telling someone that they are not good enough or even tell yourself, sooner or later you are going to believe it. I think children as well as adults need to learn how to love themselves and to try to think positive to bring positive outcomes. We can overcome what society throws at us.

  • Stella


    May 19th, 2009 at 8:53 AM

    How can kids find a way to love themselves when they are so frequently not getting the love that they need from the adults in their lives? For me this is a key reason for why genetics play such a small role but the parenting in their lives is huge!

  • Allie


    May 20th, 2009 at 3:56 AM

    I think it goes both ways. Love the children and give them the attention and appreciation they deserve and need and the genetic roles may not be such a major factor in this.

  • Jamie


    May 22nd, 2009 at 8:11 PM

    I think genetics does play a large role in so many things. When it plays a role in mannerisms and character traits it will definitely play a role in psychological wellness. My cousin has ADHD just like his dad.

  • Janice


    May 30th, 2009 at 9:24 PM

    Where is it given that children who are high achievers need to be loved more? Children are unique and we need to celebrate this uniqueness.

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