Turning on Genes in the Brain

The seventh chapter of “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain” by Sharon Begley explains how genes in the brain are turned on.  This chapter begins by explaining the plight of many Romanian orphans after the dictator Ceausescu was overthrown.  The terrible neglect of these orphans produced severe cognitive and emotional shortcomings, which will not be reviewed.

The single best predictor of the growth of a baby is to ask its mother, “Did you want this child?”  In 2005 scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison designed a study showing what can happen to children whose parents answer “no” to this question.  The researchers studied children who were “reared in extremely aberrant social environments where they were deprived of the kind of caregiving typical for our species.  This meant that for seven to forty-two months after their birth, the twelve girls and six boys had lived in Russian or Romanian orphanages  that the World Health Organization described as poor to appalling.  These environments were generally void of stimulation and human interaction.  The children seldom experienced the love and caring of adults who recognized and responded to their needs.

These children were adopted by American families.  Within a year, most of their medical problems—ear infections and stomach problems, malnutrition and delayed growth—vanished.  Nevertheless, due to their legacy of neglect many of the children were diagnosed with attachment disorders, an inability to form emotional bonds to those closest to them.

Animal studies have identified two brain hormones as crucial to establishing social bonds and regulating emotional behaviors.  These are oxytocin and vasopressin that are associated with the emergence of social bonding and parental care.  Oxytocin, in particular, seems to be the brain’s social hormone.  When you have warm personal contact with someone you are close to, levels rise generating a sense of security and safety that lays the foundation for you to go out and have social interactions.  So we make friends and form close emotional attachments.  Vasopressin seems to be the “Oh, it’s you!” hormone.

The scientists tracked down eighteen of the Roumanian orphans who lived in Wisconsin.  They collected two urine sample from each child, a week or two apart, soon after the children played a computer  game while sitting on the lap of their mother or one of the female scientists.  Throughout the thirty-minute game, the mother or the scientist would whisper to the child, pat him on the head, tickle him or count his fingers and let him count hers, turning the otherwise impersonal game into a bit of a cuddle session.

These orphanage children had lower levels of vasopressin, suggesting that social deprivation may inhibit the development of the vasopressin system.  The children’s level of oxytocin after playing a game with their mother or a scientist was even more depressing.  Levels of this social-bonding hormone were not expected to rise after the interactions with the stranger, and they did not, in either the orphanage children or the control children.  However, after the children born to loving families sat on their mother’s lap and cuddled, their levels of oxytocin rose.  These levels did not rise in the orphanage children.  “Oxytocin is the system that cements the bonds between children and those who love them, producing a sense of calm and comfort that provides a base from which the children and those who love them, producing a sense of calm and comfort that provides a base from which children go out and embrace the world, form childhood friendships and, eventually, deep relationships .  This system was not what it should have been in the orphanage children.

“This research suggests that the lives we lead and the behavior of those who care for us can alter the very chemistry of DNA.  Genes are not destiny.  Our genes, and thus their effects on the brain, are more plastic than we ever dreamed.”

Richie Davidson said, “This work beautifully illustrates the mechanisms by which maternal influence can occur, and that it can occur in ways that affect gene expression.  This is powerful evidence for the impact of parenting on the capacity to change the brain and raises the issue of how we can promote better parenting.”

The Dalai Lama opined, “So the key thing is a peaceful mind.  Naturally and obviously, anger, hatred, jealously, fear, these are not helpful to develop peace of mind.  Love, compassion, affection—these are the foundations of a peaceful mind.  But then the question, how to promote that?  My approach, not through Buddhist tradition, I call secular ethics.  Not talking about heaven, not of nirvana or Buddhahood, but a happy life for this world.   Irrespective of whether  there is a next life or not.  Doesn’t matter.  That’s individual business.”

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