The topic of epigenetics is relatively new field, but growing study in science. Epigenetics is the study of how the environment affects our genes. It was once believed that the genes we were born remain the same our entire lives; therefore, some people are hardwired to be more inclined to depression, anxiety or other disorders. But new research is revealing that our genes can be manipulated and our genetic code can change in our lifetime.
Researchers, today, are focusing on the differences between identical twins as an example of how external factors can affect a person’s genetic makeup. Twins are born with identical genes but their environment becomes increasingly varied as they age. This makes them an excellent subjects for understanding the role of external factors on genetics.
A report published by the University of Utah found that for twins with schizophrenia, 50% of identical twins share the disease while only about 10-15% of fraternal twins do. This difference indicates that there is a strong genetic component in susceptibility to schizophrenia. However, the fact that both identical twins do not necessarily develop schizophrenia reveals that there are other elements to consider.
In a newly aired documentary about epigenetics called Two of a Kind, Leora Eisen explores the mystery behind why her twin sister Linda suffers from leukemia while she does not. According to researcher Tim Spector of King’s College, epigenetics thus far has shown that life experiences shape future health.
“It broadly describes the mechanism by which chemical signals can switch on or off genes,” said Spector. “It’s not the gene that counts – it’s how you use them.”
Essentially, the choices one makes every day contributes to an activation or deactivation of a particular gene. What this means is disorders such as depression or addiction are real diseases where the fix is not as simple as “snapping out of it.”
According to Adam Brenner, associate professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center, the current progress in neuroscience genetics and epigenetics will decrease our perception of mental illness as unexplainable.
Although evidence in epigenetics explains how depression and addiction become real diseases, epigenetics can also pave the way for a real cure. By changing the way one eats, thinks and lives, a person can alter his or her genetic code to ultimately deactivate the gene that dictates depression or addiction.
“Within 10 years, epigenetics will be a commonplace part of medicine used in all kinds of cancer treatments, and it’s going to really make predicting individuals who get disease a much more precise art,” said Jeff Craig, a geneticist at the University of Melbourne.