Individuals Genetically At Risk Of Developing Psychological Disorders Also Benefit The Most From Positive Environments

May 31, 2009

Certain individuals have long been regarded as particularly susceptible to developing behavioural and emotional problems when they experience negative environmental conditions, due to the fact that they carry so-called ‘vulnerability genes’. Existing research suggests, for instance, that such ‘genetically vulnerable’ individuals are most likely to become impulsive and hyperactive if their mothers smoked while pregnant, to behave anti-socially if subjected to child abuse, and to become depressed if exposed to many negative life events (e.g., divorce, unemployment). But a new evaluation of existing gene-by-environment interaction (GXE) research highlighting such genetic vulnerability to adversity challenges this traditional interpretation of existing evidence. Research published in Molecular Psychiatry suggests that those carrying ‘vulnerability genes’ are not only more likely than others to be adversely affected by negative experiences but to also benefit more than others from positive environments, making them more malleable or plastic, not just vulnerable. This novel interpretation of old and new findings suggests that ‘vulnerability genes’ might be better conceptualised as ‘plasticity or malleability genes’ because carriers are more affected, for better and for worse, by positive and negative environmental conditions.
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