Genetics and Epigenetics

I’ve found that in trying to understand the underlying biological affects on mental illnesses, it’s necessary to understand a few terms.  Among these terms are Genetics and Epigenetics.  Both genetics and epigenetics have been found to be involved in various  diseases of the mind.

So, what is Genetics? Genetics is the study of heredity, in general, and of genes, in particular. 

Mental illnesses are thought to be caused by a variety of genetic and environmental factors:    

  • Genetics (Inherited traits)  Mental illness is more common in people whose blood relatives also have a mental illness. Certain genes may increase your risk of developing a mental illness, and your life situation may trigger it.
  • Environmental exposures before birth. Exposure to environmental stressors, inflammatory conditions, toxins, alcohol or drugs while in the womb can sometimes be linked to mental illness.
  • Brain chemistry. Neurotransmitters are naturally occurring brain chemicals that carry signals to other parts of your brain and body. When the neural networks involving these chemicals are impaired, the function of nerve receptors and nerve systems change, leading to depression and other emotional disorders.  (https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/symptoms-causes/syc-20374968)

What is Epigenetics?   Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene activity which are not caused by changes in the DNA sequence.  It is a set of processes that effects which genes are switched-on (expressed).

It is also the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work. Although the environment triggers natural development in some species, it often has harmful effects that have negative consequences for development and for disease.

Research is now showing that epigenetic changes are involved in ‘specific’ diseases. These include cardiovascular diseases, metabolic disorders, cancer, and neurological disorders.

Over the years, it has been debated whether or not epigenetic changes (that have accumulated throughout an entire lifespan) can be carried down from one generation to next, and the next, etc. Researchers have now begun to show significant evidence that this is the case.

Epigenetic processes have recently been implicated to cause numerous mental health disorders, including the most profound – suicide.  One in four of us will suffer from a mental disorder each year – a quarter of our population.  Yet, mental health is still lagging far behind in research.

Undeniably, there is much to be done.  Scientists are currently working on drug  treatments to turn “on/off” the harmful epigenetic modification switches.  So much more work needs to be done.  We must advocate for funding for mental health.