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November 25, 2011
Is The Way You Will Behave Already Decided Before You Are Born?

Scientists presented new research demonstrating the impact life experiences can have on genes and behavior. The studies examine how such environmental information can be transmitted from one generation to the next -- a phenomenon known as epigenetics.

This new knowledge could ultimately improve understanding of brain plasticity, the cognitive benefits of motherhood, and how a parent's exposure to a specific stimulus can alter brain development and behavior in their offspring.

The findings were presented at Neuroscience 2011, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world's largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.

This is the foundation of the nature – nurture debate. This debate looks at the role the environment (or personal experience) and/or genes have on determining individual behaviour. Scientists used to be happy to say that individual behaviour was “a bit of both” (i.e. a mixture of nature and nurture), but with advancing technology this is no longer the case. Scientists are now developing this area and determining which specific behaviours are manipulated the most by either the environment or genes.

It is not just Biology in which this area is relevant. The debate has had an influence in anti-social behaviour, and the theory that a child brought up in an abusive environment will itself be abusive later in life. In more extreme cases, people on trial for rape have even claimed that they have a “rape gene” and despite their environmental upbringing they were “programmed” to commit this crime.

The new findings showed that motherhood protects females against some of the negative effects of stress.

Mice conceived through breeding -- but not those conceived through reproductive technologies -- show anxiety-like and depressive-like behaviors similar to their fathers. The findings call into question how these behaviors are transmitted across generations.

So how do you test if a particular behaviour is the result of the environment or genes? Twins are genetically identical, so output studies can be used to measure environmental effects on behaviour. This includes things like reaction times and academic ability. These are both easy to measure and are completely non-invasive.

The link between genes, the environment and behaviour is a complex relationship. Common consensus is that, while the presence or lack of a gene might make us more likely to do something, we still choose how we behave, and have control over our lives. How this will be manipulated in the courts is another matter. A defendant may argue that his or her genes "“made them do it."

"Research in the last few years has dramatically changed what we know about how behaviors are inherited," said press conference moderator Flora Vaccarino, MD, from Yale University, an expert on the developing brain. "Today's findings show how our genes and environment work together to influence brain development throughout a lifetime."


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