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Psychological Resilience and Adult Support

— This past week’s edition of the New York Times Magazine (30 April 2006) carries story by Emily Bazelon called “A Question of Resilience” that is sure to attract a lot of attention in medical, psychological, and educational circles.

The story reports on research into the long-term psychological effects of child abuse, or more broadly, of destabilizing and traumatic experiences in general. While many people who have experienced trauma carry permanent psychological scars, some people seem to bounce back from traumatic experiences rather successfully: they exhibit resilience. What will attract a lot of attention to this particular story is that researchers claim to have identified a genetic basis for this kind of resilience and have located it in a gene called 5-HTT. Some people, it is claimed, have a genetic predisposition to resilience, while others do not.

I’m a biologist by training, and one of the things I always try to teach beginning students is that they should be very skeptical of “gene-for” language. The simple-minded notion that there is “a gene for” any particular trait is, in the vast majority of cases, just that: simple minded. If you’re reading an article about medical genetics and you don’t see any mention of important concepts like pleiotropy, epistasis, and the norm of reaction of a genotype, then you’re being fed a very unsophisticated line.

This New York Times story doesn’t do too bad a job in its treatment of genetics, but it still has a few major confusions. The 5-HTT gene that is the story’s focus appears to be related at least in part to serotonin regulation, but for all we know it may be related to any number of other effects on different bodily systems, too: that’s the concept of pleiotropy, and no information is available on the pleiotropic effects of 5-HTT. This gene is known in a short and a long version, and since we all have two copies of each of our genes, any particular person may be short/short, short/long, or long/long with respect to 5-HTT.

The story commits a real howler at this point. In explaining the variation in the gene, Bazelon writes: “In humans, each 5-HTT gene has two alleles, and each allele occurs in either a short or a long version.” This muddled statement is the sort of thing that might appear on a first-year biology exam alongside the question, “What is wrong with this sentence?” The short and long versions of the gene are the alleles: alleles or allelomorphs are alternate forms of a gene.

Setting aside this terminological confusion, the real import of the study is that it examines not simply the presence or absence of a supposed gene for resilience, but rather that it examines the interaction between the putative gene and a person’s environment, as well as the different outcomes of different gene+environment combinations. In particular, the researchers have asked about the effect that supportive adults can have on formerly abused children who are short/short and long/long for the “resilience gene”:

[Psychologist Joan] Kaufman also built on the work of psychologists who have measured the quality of abused children’s relationships to adults, asking the children to name the person they most often “talk to about personal things, count on to buy the things they need, share good news with, get together with to have fun and go to if they need advice.” The mean depression score for abused children with two short alleles who rarely saw the adults they named was off the charts. If the children with two short alleles saw the adults they counted on daily or almost daily, their depression scores were very close to the scores of the children with two long protective alleles—and within reach of the children who had not been abused. (The children with the protective version of the gene were far less affected by a lack of contact with their primary adult.) “Good support ameliorates the effect of abuse and of the high risk genotype.”

In crude terms, then, these are the outcomes:

genotype harsh environment
poor adult support
harsh environment
good adult support
good environment
short/short poor good good
long/long good good good

While some people may focus on the left column and point out that genes influence psychological outcomes, the important message is the one contained in the middle column: even in a harsh or formerly harsh environment, strong support from adults can cancel the effect of the supposedly non-resilient genotype. This is a straightforward example of a basic genetic truth: every genotype has a norm of reaction—a range of phenotypes that it can produce depending upon the environment it finds itself in.

Other news stories in the past few months have reported that more brain development occurs in late adolescence and early adulthood—the principal college years—than had formerly been thought. If anyone still doubts the importance of a strong and stable residential environment for students—an environment with a strong, visible, and daily adult presence—studies like these should put those doubts to rest once and for all.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2016