Posts Tagged ‘Epigenetics’

Can Emotional Style Change?

March 21, 2020

This post is based on an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them. The immediately preceding post ended “The brain signatures of each dimension of Emotional Style seem so fundamental to our being, it’s easy to assume they are innate, as characteristic of a person as his fingerprints or eye color, and equally unlikely to change.”

This assumption will be examined in the subsequent post.
Here is that examination. The nature nurture debate has a long history. The debate concerned how much of a person’s life is determined by genes versus experience. The new field of epigenetics should have ended that debate. Critical to the role of genetics is which genes are read out from the genome. If the gene is not read out, the gene cannot be expressed. So what determines whether a gene will be read out? That is determined by nurture, or the experience of the individual. So the nature nurture debate should have ended. As nothing can be ethically be done about nature, all the focus should be on nurture.

There is a wide variety of evidence showing the effects of epigenetic using both human and infra-human subjects. There is a suicide brain bank in Quebec, the Quebec Suicide Brain Bank to be specific. Samples from 36 brains were studied, one-third of which who had suffered abuse in childhood, one-third from suicides who had not been abused, and one-third from non-suicides. Analyzing the human brains the researchers found that , compared with non-suicide brains, the brains of people who had taken their own lives and had suffered child abuse contained significantly more methylation “off” switches on the gene for the glucocorticoid receptor. This was the gene that the research team had discovered was methylated in rats raised by neglectful mothers. When this gene is silenced the stress-response system is on a hair trigger, making it extremely difficult to cope with adversity. Abnormal activity in the stress-response system had long been linked to suicide.

Prof. Richardson writes, “The presence of a methyl group sitting on a piece of DNA is called an epigenetic change. It does not alter the sequence of the gene, denoted by he well-known strings of A’s, T’s, C’s, and G’s, but it does alter whether the gene will be expressed. And it may explain puzzles like the low concordance for schizophrenia between identical twins. At birth, identical twins are very similar epigenetically; if a particular gene is silence in one twin, it is usually silenced in the other. But as we go through life, it turns out, we accumulate epigenetic changes. Either through random chance or because of experiences we have—something akin to being nurtured by a parent, perhaps, but almost certainly many others that reach down into our very DNA—our genes take on more and more epigenetic marks, silencing some genes that had previously spoken and lifting the gag order that others may had been under.”

Prof. Richardson cites research on the emotional development of children that reinforces this point.


February 27, 2020

This post is inspired by a book by Rowan Hooper titled Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of our Capacity, but very little, if any, is taken from the chapter in that book titled Intelligence.

Unfortunately, intelligence is a much abused concept. Some of that abuse stems from trying to divide intelligence into genetic and learned components, that is nature vs. nurture. It is true that statisticians can break the IQ into genetic and nurtured components, but what people don’t realize is that this is a mathematical abstraction. It does not exist in the real world. Nature and nurture are always inextricably intertwined. This confound has been further magnified with the development of the field of epigenetic. Epigenetics is the study of how the genome is read out, and this readout is a function of interactions with the real world.

The IQ test itself has been used to segregate people into different groups of intelligence. This results in a bias in the effort that goes into educating lower IQ groups. One might think that greater attention should be given to these groups, but the usual result is that the quality of education is lower and teachers can end up spending less effort on low IQ groups.

What is worse yet, is that people can use the results of these tests to define themselves, and to limit the avenues they explore.

The basic problem, then, is not in the IQ test itself, but in how it is used. Nevertheless, the abilities tested by the IQ test should be expanded to better capture the future potential of the child or adult.

The goal of education should be to try to achieve the maximum potential of each child. So initial testing can indicate an initial level of achievement, but the effort should be to try to increase that level of achievement. The Flynn effect is the substantial and long-sustained increase in both fluid and crystallized intelligence test scores that were measured in many parts of the world over the 20th century. So not only can IQ increase, but it has been increasing over time. Some theorists argue that this is the result of advancing technology.

The argument here is not that every individual has unlimited potential, but that there should be no preconceptions about intelligence.

When difficulty is reached at a certain stage, the child can be moved into different areas of achievement. The goal should be to use technology to its best advantage in developing human beings for their own self-fulfillment and to benefit society as a whole.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Does Your Family Make You Smarter?

October 18, 2016

The title of this post is identical to the title of a very important book by Professor James R. Flynn.  The subtitle is ”Nature, Nurture, and Human Autonomy.”  Flynn is the founder of the “Flynn Effect,” which describes the inflation of the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) over time.  This effect has been so large and consistent that the IQ has to have been periodically updated and recalibrate so that the mean would be 100.  Flynn had argued that this must be an artifact as we apparently had not become as smarter as the recalibration of the test indicated.  However, further research and collaboration with his colleague W. T. Dickens led to the conclusion that we were becoming smarter, and an explanation of how we were becoming smarter.

“Does Your Family Make You Smarter” is highly technical.  For those whose area of interest is this topic, then reading is mandatory.  However, this book should be of interest to everyone, so HM shall try to summarize the salient points that are of general interest.

Historically, IQ has been a hot topic with respect to the distinction between genetic and environmental effects.  Although we can distinguish between the two factors with mathematics, it is important to realize that in the real world we cannot view genetic as distinct from environment effects.  HM is reminded of a story, perhaps apocryphal, of an experiment that was done to determine what was the true language for humans.  So the plan was not to interact or speak with a newborn baby.  They thought that when the baby did speak, they would know what the true human language was.  Of course, in this environment the baby would never learn a language and would be severely handicapped.

The truth is that the effects of genes and environment are inextricably intertwined.   Flynn does not even touch the topic of epigenetics, which refers to the information that is read out from the genes.  Recent research has found that the nature of this readout can be beneficial or detrimental depending on the nature of the environment.

Flynn’s colleague Dickens posited that genes and environment become more highly correlated as we age, meaning that their influence was additive.  The potency of the environment was based by combining the two, which erroneously had been ascribed to genes alone in the twin studies.  By the time we reach maturity, current environment has only a feeble memory of past environments except under unusual  circumstances such as brain trauma.

What has been happening is that modernity is causing our habits of processing information to adapt so that we can more readily handle abstract concepts. So most of us have become more intelligent.  There is a social multiplier effect, which is aided and abetted by technology.  The example provided is basketball.  The televising of basketball games enabled everyone to see how the game was played by experts.  Young players try to model on the playground what they saw on television.

There are adverse effects of new technology, such as the spread of misinformation.  But there are also good effects as better ways of thinking and doing things can be readily communicated.

Flynn speaks of family effects.  Family effects include genes and the environment provided by the family.  A family of professionals will have a higher level of communication and will follow more media with better quality information.  These effects continue until the young adult leaves home.  Intelligence should continue to develop depending upon the environments in which she works and plays.  In good environments intelligence should continue to grow.  This growth can stop when people retire unless they continue to foster their cognitive development with mental and social activities that promote continued growth.

Healthy memory readers should immediately recognize that this is in consonance with the message that is repeated over and over in this blog.  Should you not have recognized this consonance, then you have a lot of remedial reading to do.  Start by entering “growth mindsets” into the search block of the healthy memory blog.

Dr. Flynn is 82 years old and provides an ideal individual to try to emulate.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Cancer and the Genetic Horizons of Mind Body Treatment

December 5, 2015

This title is the same as the title of Chapter 8 in the “Relaxation Revolution” by Benson and Proctor.  This research is in an early stage.  They used the data from the experiment reported in the immediately preceding healthy memory blog post, “The Genetic Breakthrough—Your Ultimate Mind Body Connection.”  The data from this study was compared with cancer databases compiled  by the Broad Institute  of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Weitzman Institute of Science in Israel.  These databases identify cancer gene “signatures” or “sets,” which are associated with groups of gene activity of different cancer patients.  Specifically, they assessed whether gene sets in the relaxation response subjects might correlate with cancer-associated gene sets in cancer patients.

The results were presented at the Society for Integrative Oncology, 6th International Conference in 2009.  The findings were highly encouraging for future research and possible medical treatment.  They found that the gene set expression in the long-term relaxation response practitioners in their study was counter to the gene expression in the following cancers:  lymphoma (follicular and B cell lymphoma), neuro tumors (central nervous system and glioma), liver, leukemia), multiple myeloma, B cell chronic lymphoblastic leukemia, and another form of leukemia.  The results from the long-term practitioners showed gene set expression that was in the same direction as, or consistent with, the expression found in certain anticancer therapies.

The results were also encouraging for the short-term trainees who had started with no background in mind body techniques, but who had been instructed in Phase One relaxation response.  Their relaxation response gene set expression signatures countered or opposed the gene signatures for such cancer as neuro tumors, multiple myeloma, and leukemia.

Do not forget that the relaxation response is helpful in dealing with stress in general.  So to the extent cancer or cancer treatments produce stress, the relaxation response is helpful in dealing with that stress.

Unfortunately, I do not know how far research has advanced since the publication of this book.  Anyone who can provide information or sources,  please provide comments.

The Genetic Breakthrough—Your Ultimate Mind Body Connection

December 2, 2015

This is the title of the second chapter from the “Relaxation Revolution” by Benson and Proctor.  Lamarkian transmission, the notion that experience could be passed on to offspring because genes would be changed  was long ago debunked.  However, recent research has revealed that although genes cannot be changed, due to epigenetics the read out from genes can be changed.  The following experiment demonstrated how the relaxation response or meditation can modify the read out from genes to the good.

The experiment involved 38 individuals. Nineteen were practitioners of techniques that invoked the relaxation response.  The average amount of experience was 9.8 years of practice.  These nineteen individuals were matched as closely as possible with nineteen individuals who had no experience with the relaxation response.  The latest microarray analysis was used to check the activity of all of the 54,000 genes in each of the research participants.  2,209 genes in the experienced practitioners group were expressed differently than the same genes in the inexperienced participants.  The genes that acted differently have been associated with stress related medical problems, including unhealthful regulation of immune responses; various forms of inflammation;premature aging, including thinning of the cortex of the brain; and other health conditions that may involve oxidative stress.

Next eight weeks were set aside to teach the non-practioners  how to enter the relaxation response state.  They were guided through a 20-minute relaxation response experience using the Olivia audio disk, a 20-minute CD.  After the eight weeks of training, blood was drawn and gene expression was measured again.

There were three sets of measurement
The experienced practitioner group
The non-practitioners before relaxation response training
The non-practitioners after relaxation response training.

They found that 433 gene expression signatures were similar in both groups.  It is remarkable that in only eight weeks of training differences were found in so many gene signatures.

This is a remarkable finding that the mind can not only affect the body, but it can also affect epigenetics, the expression of genes.

This experiment can be found in the following article:

Dusek, J.A., H.H. Otto, A.L. Wohlhueter, M. Bhasin, L.F. Zerbini, M.G. Joseph, H. Benson, aand T.A. Libermann, “Genomic Counter-Stress Changes Induced by the Relaxation Response.”  PLoS ONE, Jul., 2008, 3(7): e2576.

The Olivia CD can be obtained by going to and clicking on meditation CDs.

What Next for Randomized Clinical Trials?

March 14, 2015

An article by Herbert I. Weisberg in the February 2015 Significance (22-27), which is a joint publication of the American Statistical Association and the Royal Statistical Society of Great Britain addresses a concern I have been increasingly having regarding the Gold Standard of research, Randomized Clinical Trials (RCTs).  Advances in the sciences and in statistical practice have raised some serious questions regarding their generality.

Actually RCTs are a fairly recent development.  For most of medical history medicine was an art practiced by “healers and  based on esoteric knowledge acquired mostly through apprenticeship.”  The situation began to changed in the 1700s, during the Age of Enlightenment.  The scientific method based on empirical evidence about disease and the effectiveness of different interventions began to be applied.  However, the article notes that with the exception of a dispute over the wisdom of inoculation to prevent smallpox, the study of medical treatment remained almost entirely qualitative.  Even the study by James Lind that eventually led to the use of citrus fruits to cure scurvy would be regarded as a pilot study by today’s standards.

However, at this time, statistical ideas had yet to arrive.  Pierre-Simon Laplace was a strong believer in the potential of statistical analysis in various fields including medicine.  Laplace’s prescription was primarily theoretical, but it did influence some contemporary medical researchers,  One of these was Pierre Louis, who formulated a “numerical method” of assessing treatment efficacy.  His approach, applied first in the 1820s utilized simple counts without formal probabilistic analysis.

Two major advances took place in the 1920s that led to the golden age of the RCT.  One was the fortuitous discovery of penicillin in1928.  This led to a proliferation of new antibiotics that transformed medical practice.  The administration of these life-saving treatments was relatively straightforward and depended little, if any, on subtle medical judgment.  The effects of these drugs were much less variable with respect to the patient’s response than most traditional therapies. The second advance was in statistics.  In 1925 Fisher’s Statistical Methods for Research Workers was published.  This provided methodological guidance for RCTs.  Gosset’s development of the t-test solved how to analyzed experiments with modest sample sizes.  As the article notes, by the 1970s, the methodology of large-scale double-blinded RCT had reached maturity and was broadly accepted as the way to demonstrate the efficacy of a pharmaceutical product, and was mandated by regulatory agencies throughout the world.

It is important that the RCT permits generalization to the population from which the sample used in the RCT was drawn.  It does not necessarily generalize to every individual in that sample, or to individuals who belong to other populations.  In most studies there are individuals who either didn’t die or recovered from the illness that the drug was intended to eliminate or mitigate.  But the RCT requires large samples to estimate statistical confidence.

The advent of epigenetics has refocused the attention on to individuals.  Even individuals with the same genetic backgrounds might differ in their response to a treatment because of the way the information was read out of the genome.  Genetic differences can determine the efficacy of different treatments.  Suddenly the world has become much more complicated.  The promise of developing specific treatments for specific individuals has tremendous potential, but is only beginning.  There is much to be learned and new techniques for research and treatment will need to be developed.  So we must wait and hope.

The important point for readers of the healthy memory blog is that when you read the results of a RCT, the results might not pertain to you individually.  This is particularly true in research areas such as mindfulness.  You might read that such and such a method was not found to be beneficial.  What was found was that the method was not found to be beneficial for the treatment group and for the population from which that group was drawn.  But there may have been differences with respect to the research protocol, or to the assiduousness with which certain participants carried out the method.  So you shouldn’t necessarily rule out trying the method yourself or some variant of the method.

Back from APS

May 28, 2013

That is, I’m back from the convention of the Association for Psychological Science. It was an outstanding meeting. This blog post will present a brief synopsis and will promise some blog posts for the future. As I mentioned in my previous post, there were so many interesting topics that some overlapped and I could not attend both. I actually needed to miss a program with Daniel Kahneman, whom I regard as the leading psychologist today. I am not going to review every presentation I attended. Some were primarily for psychologists and of little interest to the general public, some were too technical, and, frankly, some didn’t warrant further discussion.

The Keynote Address was delivered the split-brain researcher, Michael S. Gazzaniga. It was titled “Unity in a Modular World.” I going to discuss his presentation along with the presentation by Edwin A. Locke, “Whatever Happened to the Conscious Mind” in a later healthymemory blog post.

Diane Halpern gave what was perhaps the most timely and relevant presentation, “The Psychological Science Behind Hyperpartisanship and What to do About It.” This certainly deserves its own healthymemory blog post, which will be appearing later.

Helen J. Neville gave an APS William James Fellow Address titled, Experiential, Genetic, and Epigenetic Effecs in Human Neurocognitive Development.” Here talk was highly technical, and I shall not go into a detailed presentation. However, it’s importance is easy to assess. She found that there was a much higher incidence of difficulties in focusing attention in pre-schoolers from low socioeconomic status families than from higher socioeconomic status children. She was able to develop a training program that was able to correct this problem. As the ability to focus attention is important to learning and success in school, this program is highly relevant. Moreover, it is fairly short term and can be administered cheaply. More can be found about this program at

David Strayer gave a presentation on multi-tasking and using a cell phone while driving. In short, the risk is becoming greater. Much more will be written in a later healthymemory post. This is a message that people do want to hear, but it needs to be told.

At the Presidential Symposium,r Ted Abel gave a presentation on “Epigenetics and Memory Storage.” Remember the Healthymemory blog, “How the Brain and Mind Work.” That might have sounded complicated, but Abel is studying the epigenetics of the translation from DNA to RNA to protein, which underlies the formation of our memories. This work is most remarkable, as is the complexity of our brains and their emergent phenomena.

At the same symposium, Elizabeth Loftus updated her work on False Memories. This work will also be addressed in a later healthymemory blog post.

Stanovich presented his latest work on a Rational Intelligence Quotient. He has persuasively argued that the standard IQ misses an important component of cognitive activity, rational thinking. I will be following up on his work after I finish his latest book.

Ralph Hertwig gave an invited talk, “The Psychology of Decisions from Experience. People behave differently when they make decisions based on written descriptions than when they make their decisions based on experience. Vulcanologists are convinced that Mount Vesuvius will erupt in the near future. However, most of the residents of Naples, who are at risk from Vesuvius, do not want to move, because an eruption has not occurred in their lifetimes.

Mortan Ann Gernsbacher gave an address on Diversity and the Brain. This, too, will receive a later blog post.

Finally, there was a session on the cognitive reserve. Most certainly, this will receive its own blog post.

Do not expect all these posts to follow directly. First of all, they take time to write. Secondly, some posts will better fit in the context of other healthymemory blog posts.

Now for some general comments. I am continually impressed by the ubiquity of smartphones, tablets, and other personal devices at these conventions. This observation will get its own blog post. And I was disappointed about cognitive psychologists who were unfamiliar with meditation. It reminded me how parochial our discipline can be. It also reminded me of when I was a graduate student and there was a lively argument about whether the autonomic nervous system could be controlled by individuals. Well proficient meditators were already doing this, so the answer was already known. So if you read the healthymemory blog posts on meditation (enter meditation, Davidson, and Mindfulness in the healthymemory blog search post), you can consider yourself more knowledgeable about the topic than some cognitive psychologists.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Electrical Activity, Chemical Activity, Connectivity, and Epigenetic Activity

October 24, 2012

All of these are involved in making our memories. Our short term or working memories are held in fleeting changes in the brain‘s electrical and chemical activity. They quickly fade as our attention wanders, but they provide the basis of our conscious awareness.

Our long term memories are woven into webs of connections among the brain cells. The brain alters the communication between networks of cells by the creation of new receptors at the end of a neuron, by a surge in the production of a neurotransmitter, or by the forging of new ion channels that allows a brain cell to boost the voltage of its signals. The same pattern of neurons will fire when we recall the memory bringing the thought back into our consciousness. Long term memories include our autobiographical memories, our episodic memories of specific events in our lives, our sensory memories, as well as our semantic memories that comprise our knowledge of the world. One of the most important brain regions involved in this process are the hippocampi. The are located near the base of the brain and are especially important in the consolidation of new memories. When they are surgically removed or damaged, no new memories can be stored. Thus, no new learning can take place.

The preceding has been known for some time, what is new is an understanding of the epigenetic changes that are involved in memory. These involve small alterations in the structure of a gene and determine its activity within the cell. For instance, certain genes linked to the formation of memories have been shown to have fewer methyl groups attached to their DNA after learning. This is a clear example of an epigenetic change.1 Every time we recall a memory, new proteins are made. The epigenetic markers are altered changing the memory in subtle ways. So the brain is not like a video camera. It is dynamic and changes itself.

1Young, E. (2012). The Making of a Memory, New Scientist, 6 October, p.34.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


August 18, 2010

This blog post is another in the series inspired by the book, The Scientific American Brave New Brain.1 That book presents a table contrasting the way the brain once was regarded, the way it is presently regarded, and some conjectures about what tomorrow might hold. According to Brave New Brain, we once thought that environment determines mental potential and that today we think that genes determine mental potential. Here I must take strong exception to Brave New Brain. There were some philosophical arguments that the mind began as a blank plate, tabula rasa, and that experience was written on that plate. The father of behaviorism, John Watson, argued that he could take an infant and raise it to be anything, a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, a physician, a lawyer, another psychologist. For him the environment determined everything and that if the proper environments were provided a child could become anything.

Even before Mendel discovered genes, there was the notion of blood and royalty. Certain people were regarded as inherently superior to others. When genes were discovered, some thought that there might be a scientific basis for this superiority, and that genetics could account for individual differences. According to Brave New Brain, that is the current belief. This is certainly not the case. Early in the twentieth century intelligence tests were developed. Arguments as to know much intelligence is attributable to genetics and how much intelligence is attributable to the environment raged. Charges of racism entered these arguments and charges and evidence that IQ tests were culturally biased raged. It should be noted that there are statistical techniques and research designs (controlled identical twins studies, for example) that allow estimates of what percentage of intelligence is genetically determined and what percentage is due to the environment. But these are statistical abstractions. Nature (genetics) and nurture (environment) are inextricably intertwined; they never appear in isolation.

The recent birth of the study of epigenetics has highlighted the interaction between the environment and genetics. The genome cannot be considered alone. Another layer of information stored with the genome is called the epigenome. It is a chemical switch that determines which genes are activated and which genes remain dormant. It does not alter the genetic code, but affects the specific expression of genes. It shuts down or revs up the production of proteins that affect mental states.

Today we know the role of epigenetics. The question for the future is how well can we develop our understanding of epigenetics and whether we can use it to enhance brain function. Research using mice provides reasons for optimism. One study involved mice that were born with genetic disorder resembling mental retardation. They were given a drug that activated epigenetic activity three hours before a training session. They exhibited no learning problems. So perhaps someday mental retardation might be remedied via epigenitic manipulation.

Drugs are not necessarily required for epigenitic manipulation. Researchers at MIT restored mouse memories by enriching the rodents environment. Not only were memories restored but evidence of epigenetic activity was found. Research on the benefits of enriching environments was done years ago, but that was before anyone had ever heard of an epigenome.

1Horstman, J. (2010). San Francisco” Jossey-Bass.