Epigenetics specifies stress responses

By this point in the year, most St. Olaf students have taken a midterm or two. From the moment the exams reach their fingertips, the test takers reveal their various techniques for handling the stress of the situation.

There are students who see a midterm as a celebration of learning and dive into the exam with zeal to fill the pages with all they have learned. Other students are a little more apprehensive about the event revealing their discomfort through their body language. There are usually a few pencil tappers, nail biters, knee bouncers and hair pullers. Some students even appear almost paralyzed as they stare at the exam placed before them.

However, each individual person has a different way of expressing and controlling stress. New research is exploring the ways in which individualized traits, such as stress response, may in fact be connected to the genetics of individuals. Epigenetics, the field of scientific study that examines how traits that are not coded by DNA can be transferred from one generation to the next, has recently become an academic topic of interest.

Due to the lack of concrete information readily available in this field, the study of epigenetics has been criticized for producing questionable results. However, advancing technology has provided many opportunities for the field of epigenetics to expand and find validity in the scientific realm. Its findings should be taken seriously and can be used to help people learn more about themselves.

In a recent study published in Biological Psychiatry, researchers found that one of these transferable traits not found in DNA could be the way individuals cope with stress. In the past, research on stress response being passed on from generation to generation has been mostly based on psychology. While some of the methods individuals use to cope with their stress may come from observational learning, others may come directly from an inherited biological tendency.

The research team, led by Dr. Inna Gaisler-Salomon at the University of Haifa in Israel, examined the CRHRI gene, which codes for the CRF1 protein in female rats. They observed that female rats exposed to high levels of stress experienced an increased amount of CRF1 protein in their frontal cortex, an area of the brain that controls emotion and decision making. They discovered that the offspring of these rats also had an increased level of CRF1 protein in their frontal cortex.

This study is relevant because it shows that genetic information that is not encoded in DNA may still be passed along from generation to generation. When this information is applied to taking a midterm, it is simply an interesting fact to keep in mind. In the grand scheme of things, however, the important findings of this study could help the public understand psychiatric illnesses, like post-traumatic stress disorder, that are caused by stress.

Epigenetics is crucial to a comprehensive understanding of humans. Understanding more about the traits that are passed on from one generation to the next can help people better understand those around them. The information can give them empathy and appreciation for their peers. The more that is known about human behavior, the more people will be able to understand the actions, reactions and tendencies of those around them.

As researchers discover more about the ways in which the mind and body interact, the study of epigenetics is going to become even more important. As technology advances, such detailed research is becoming easier to conduct, and the results are becoming more easily accessible to the public.

Take advantage of the many resources at your fingertips to learn more about scientific research like epigenetics. It could help you better understand the social interactions and individual tendencies of those you meet.

Amy Mihelich ’16 mihelich@stolaf.edu is an Opinions editor from Forest Lake, Minn. She majors in English and political science.

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