How much can you blame on your genes? University of Iowa research published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics may give insight into why some people suffer panic attacks, or may be more susceptible to the addiction of smoking. Doctor Rob Philibert says as we learn more about how our brains work, we can understand why everyone’s unique body chemistry affects their mental condition.
"Behavioral illnesses result from interactions between our genes and the environment," Philibert explains. It’s not always a relationship we like, but he says for some time we’ve known things like how people who eventually will develop panic disorder have certain physical traits. They’re sensitive in an unusual way to stress hormones, the researcher says, something that will show up in a blood test long before their condition progresses to full-blown panic attacks. The blood test could pinpoint a likely future smoker, too, in the same way.
This type of research, he says, can help pinpoint those factors, both genetic and environmental, which "cue" us to engage in kinds of behavior that could be bad for us, and those we love. One more interesting part of both studies — both analyzed the makeup of brain-cell DNA not by delving into the skull, but by analyzing a drop of blood.
The cells in the blood have the same genetic makeup as those in the brain, after all. Philibert explains they’re exposed to the same environment, too: "They experience the same diets, they express the same hormonal stresses, the same pollutants as the rest of the cells in the brain." Philibert says the studies on panic disorder and smoking don’t mean your DNA dooms you to a certain kind of life.
Philibert says his research shows genetic predispositions are not deterministic…in other words, that we can change. "The DNA variation that we inherit doesn’t mean that we’re going to develop an illness," Philibert says. "The environment can help us re-program the expression of genes." He’s aware that being able to test a drop of blood and foretell a person’s medical and psychological fate could lead to all kinds of abuse and prejudice, if it ever became reality.
"A man can use a hammer to build a house, to build a bridge, to build a shelter for the poor," Philibert says. "At the same a man can use the same hammer to break a window." He says common sense and the legal structure of society guide us, and he has faith Iowans will use this kind of new technology in constructive ways. The reports on using blood DNA analysis on panic attacks and smoking are published in this week’s on-line edition of the genetic journal.