In my last blog post reviewing Marc Lewis’ book, Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines his Former Life on Drugs, I indicated that our brains, with all their neuronal and chemical intricacy, appear to respond to a higher authority than just chemistry. There seems to be a “self” or a “soul” which may alter the direction of an addiction–or other behavior.
That is good news for all of us. It means that when we are depressed, anxious, or even addicted, there is an “I” that can come to our rescue. That is the message I have been presenting throughout my website, starting many years ago before there were blogs.
I indicated at the end of that post that there was a second piece of evidence to support my proposition. Let me digress for a moment to set the groundwork for what I am about to share with you.
When I took high school biology (a very long time ago) we learned that there was a scientist called Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in 1809 who preceded Charles Darwin. Lamarck had a theory of “use and disuse” which said that characteristics that animals use get somehow incorporated into their genes and can therefore be passed down to their offspring, while unused characteristics get genetically dropped.
The theory was rejected and we students laughed at such quaint ideas. Well, we can stop laughing.
Researchers across the country and throughout the world are studying the field of epigenetics. This includes the effects of what are called epigenetic markers. This is the science of noting which genes are turned on or off due to environmental influences and how this on-or-off status is passed on to the next generation.
Epigenetic Markers and Stress
For example, Dr. Marilyn Essex at the University of Wisconsin published an article in the September issue of the journal Child Development in which she demonstrated that the DNA of teenagers was altered due to their mothers’ stress during pregnancy. Imagine that: a decade and a half after birth, the DNA of these offspring showed signs of their mothers’ pregnancy stress.
Dr. Eric Nestler, at Mount Sinai in New York, in his studies with mice, found that these changes can be passed down the generations. Dr. Nestler found, for example, that stress leads to epigenetic changes making mice more likely to become addicted to cocaine.
How does this process work and why is it relevant to marriage and family relationships?
The researchers think that stress turns off and on genes that are important to our functioning. So, for instance, smoking de-activates a tumor-suppression gene. Dr. Barry Lester at Brown University found that traumatized mothers had low birth weight babies because the genetic changes from the trauma affected metabolism. Dr. Lester sees this as a biological advantage: By affecting the gene that regulates metabolism, the baby is prepared to withstand lower nutritional levels, thus handling poverty better. If such a child’s nutritional intake improves, the gene does not reverse itself and the child is unprepared for a richer environment, leading to possible disease.
The good news here is that we are not prisoners of our genetics. The environment we help to create—and our reactions to it—have far more to do with who we are than we have imagined. In other words, before we rush to say th at depression, for example, is inherited in a family, let’s recall that our reaction to our environment may affect our genetics. It starts with us and the buck stops with us.