The first introduction to psychology normally comes in the form of biology classes. Many biology students already come into class with at least basic knowledge of psychology. They understand that their genes determine how their bodies work, how they physically function and, to a certain degree, how they act or what illnesses they may develop. But hardly any of these students have an understandable comprehension of what exactly DNA is, where it is found in the body, why it causes problems, and how it can be manipulated or altered.
In the case of development, the genes passed from one generation to the next only need to survive. Genes are merely instructions for doing things. People, as all living things, are programmed through thousands of years of natural selection to participate in behavior that’s survival oriented. The basis for this programming is that the expression of certain genes that cause specific traits, such as aggressiveness, violence or sexuality. In the case of psychology, the genes that are passed on to us through our parents, grandparents, or other kin will determine such behavior.
In terms of understanding what is happening genetically, we’re still in the age of molecular biology. Within this framework, genes are simply packets of information carrying directions. This is how humans, plants and animals have been growing for centuries. However, in the past 50 years or so, a revolution in the field of psychology has occurred known as molecular biology or genomics. Genomics provides a new lens through which we can see the relationships between behavior and genes.
The molecular basis for behaviors and human memory is in fact quite simple – it is all about the epigenome. The Epigenome is a cellular memory storage that determines whether or not a behavior will be expressed or not. Like all memory storage systems, it contains information that is “programmed” in advance by the genome.
What we now know is that the genetic material that determines behavior exists in all of us, but in varying quantities. Most of the variations come from the variation in the copies of genes within the cellular memory storage of the individual. The copy of the gene that determines the behaviour is called the epigome. It’s this particular copy that we call the epigenome.
The importance of the epigenome in psychology and its relationship to individual differences has been shown in a landmark study on twins. For many years, autism research was based upon research on twins. However, it was discovered that there was substantial heritability (hitability) to behavior which existed between people who had identical twins but whose traits were quite different. This study provided the first evidence of the significance of the epigenome in human behavior and its link to abnormal behavioral disorders such as autism.
Although the significance of this Epigenome in psychology has been established, many in the psychological field are hesitant to accept its potential as a substantial factor in mental illness. One reason for this is it is hard to define a real genetic sequence or locus that leads to a behavioral disorder. Another issue is that there are simply too many genetic differences between people to use a single DNA sequence to determine mental illness. Finally, even though the research on the Epigenome has been promising, more work has to be done to find out the role that genetics play in complex diseases such as schizophrenia. If this finding holds true, it may be used as a basis for studying other complicated diseases that have complicated genetic components.
If you are interested in learning more about Epigenetics and how it applies to psychology, I strongly advise that you follow the links below. My website discusses the exciting new technologies that are available now to better understand how Epigenetics affects behavior and the susceptibility to disease. You can also hear me speak on my epigenetics and autism blog. My research into Epigenetics is focused on understanding the environmental causes of disease, but I also have been involved in studying the relationship between Epigenetics and Autism. My future posts will also talk about diseases of the brain that can be impacted by Epigenetics.