Monday, November 9, 2009

The Biology of Parenting

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Good parenting handbooks, Oprah, child psychologists...raising kids isn't easy. Bad parenting and neglect can lead to psychological and emotional consequences for the children of unhealthy households. Now, bad parenting can also affect the genetics of the child.

These genetic changes are not changes in the sequence of DNA; the A's, T's, C's and G's that determine much of who we are. The effects of early stresses in life are changes in the epigenome. The epig
enome is how genes are regulated by the proteins that associate and bind to DNA. Epi - means to sit upon - and this level of inheritance is in addition to the sequence of DNA you inherit from your parents. The epigenome is particularily sensitive to environmental changes - toxin exposure, stress and even diet can affect the epigenetics of an individual leading to long-term biological changes.

Research from the Max Planck Institute in Germany found that newborn mice that were stressed during infancy had changes in their gene expression pattern that lasted throughout life. The sequence of DNA didn't change - the epigenetics did.

Infant mice were separated from their mothers for a few hours of the day early on in their lives. This stress made the pups release a chemical that affected the epigenetics of the hormone vasopressin. Its the release of this hormone that led to learning and memory problems later in life for the little mice.

Our DNA can dictate many things about who and what we are, but we are finding that the epigenome is an integral player in our inheritance pattern. And the epigenome merges the environment we create for our kids with their biology. As if we needed another reason to take care of our children.

--Torah Kachur

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