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Presidential Symposium

The New Genetics and What It Means for Psychological Science

Saturday, May 23, 2009, 6:00 PM - 7:30 PM
Yerba Buena 9

Walter Mischel Chair: Walter Mischel
Columbia University

Historically, efforts to understand individual differences in behavior and the transmission of traits across generations have focused on either genetic or environmental factors. Modern advances in molecular biology provide insight into the dynamic interplay between these factors. The evolving field of epigenetics addresses how the expression of genes is activated by environmental experience, resulting in enduring changes in an individual that can be transmitted across generations. These modern biological approaches to the study of behavior provide the basis for re-thinking traditional approaches to heritability and the relationship between nature and nurture.

Speakers will discuss the exciting new field of epigenetics and the interplay between genes and environment, providing insights into how this knowledge can be applied to the study of an individual at biological and social levels, as well as the implications of this new understanding for the concept of inheritance.

Recommended readings:

Meaney MJ. (2001) Nature, nurture, and the disunity of knowledge. Annals of the New York Academy Science. 935:50-61.

Champagne FA, Curley JP. (2005) How social experiences influence the brain. Curr Opin Neurobiol. 15:704-9.

Frances A. Champagne

Nurturing Nature: Epigenetics and the Transmission of Behavior Across Generations
Frances A. Champagne
Columbia University
Can the experiences of one generation alter the brain and behavior of subsequent generations? Recent studies suggest that experiences early in development can shape the activity of our DNA. These "epigenetic" effects provide a molecular basis for changes in gene functioning that allow plasticity to emerge across the lifespan. Using animal models, we have found that the quality of maternal care received in infancy can change the expression of genes involved in reproductive behavior, allowing for the transmission of maternal behavior across generations. This behavioral transfer of characteristics from parents to offspring and grand-offspring is also influenced by environmental experiences beyond infancy. Thus, exposure to social enrichment or isolation during the juvenile period or a severe stressor in adulthood can alter the pathway of development and in some cases reverse the effects of early maternal care.

Michael J. Meaney

Maternal Programming of Neuroendocrine Function and Behavior Through Epigenetic Effects on Gene Expression
Michael J. Meaney
McGill University, Canada
Research in rats has shown that the quality of maternal care can determine their offspring’s behavioral and physiological responses to stress. Specifically, mothering in the form of grooming behavior produces long-lasting effects in gene expression of brain regions that mediate stress reactivity, most notably through the regulation of central corticotrophin-releasing hormone. These findings, as well the discovery that stress affects insulin sensitivity and fat metabolism, corroborate research in human females raised under conditions of familial adversity. We suggest that a maternally-induced epigenetic modification of specific DNA regions underlies these differences in gene expression and phenotype.

Marla B. Sokolowski

Gene by Environment Interactions on Behavior
Marla B. Sokolowski
University of Toronto, Canada
Nutrition during development and adulthood affects health outcomes. However, not all individuals are affected in the same way because nutrition during development interacts with the individual’s genetics. Focusing on the "foraging" gene, we have identified specific genetic variants that are differentially sensitive to diet and exercise. In animal models, variation in this gene affects food intake, activity levels, fat levels and an individual’s ability to learn and remember. Specifically, the foraging gene interacts with insulin signaling genes and the neuropeptide Y receptor. An understanding of the interplay between genes and the environment is critical for investigations into normal and disordered eating.

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Gordon Bower