Do genes shape our mental health?

Chromosome 2

Chromosome 2 (click twice for larger image)
Genome Management Information System, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Human Chromosomes from “Human Genome Landmarks: Selected Genes, Traits, and Disorders” Poster, 2002. (Gene Gateway)

“I want to know what it feels like to have a close encounter with my DNA, this invisible, digital self that lies curled up like a fetus in every single cell of my body.”  – Lone Frank

When asked by the researcher if she has first-degree relatives with mental health problems, Lone Frank says yes.

Asked which ones, Lone says: all of them.

Depression, multiple suicides, bipolar disorder, alcoholism. With mordant humor, Lone Frank describes her family history. She’s forthcoming about her own three episodes of depression, then lies to the researcher about how many drinks she has each week. Fourteen glasses of red wine, for the health benefits. (But it’s really closer to twenty drinks or more. At least, that’s what she tells the reader.)

Lone, a Danish science journalist with a PH.D. in neurobiology, volunteered to take part in a major research project to study the connection between personality, an inclination toward depression, and specific genes.

In My Beautiful Genome: Exploring My Genetic Future One Quirk at a Time, she takes us along as she undergoes genetic testing, completes questionnaires and personality tests, and talks with multiple experts who interpret the results. Along the way she grapples with many questions.

Does she, indeed, have genes that predispose her to depression?

How does the environment factor in, as well as her upbringing and her own free will to pull herself out of depression and make cognitive and lifestyle changes to prevent it?

Does she unwittingly contribute to her own dark moods and temperament by building her own, unique environment – under the influence of her genes – that is conducive to depression?

On the other hand, does she possess certain genes or genetic variations that give rise to traits that help her excel in certain areas?

Do some genetic variations mitigate the effects of others?

Are there “good” and “bad,” “healthy” and “unhealthy” genetic variations, or simply variations that lead to different outcomes depending on one’s circumstances?

I won’t give away what Lone discovers, but she finds out a lot and, in the end, concludes the information is enormously helpful.

Let me stress that the average lay person could not mine their own genome for this information the way Lone did. Because she’s a journalist with a doctorate in neurobiology, she had access to sophisticated genetic tests and, more importantly, to experts who could interpret the results and how they might affect her personality and behavior.

Nonetheless, mining Lone’s genome with her is a glimpse into what may be possible for all of us, eventually, if we want it.

How much would you want to know about your genes and how they might shape your personality and behavior? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Coming up, what Lone’s DNA reveals about her future health.

Quote from My Beautiful Genome: Exploring My Genetic Future One Gene at a Time, by Lone Frank, Oneworld Publications, Oxford, 2011.

One response

  1. Pingback: Books Can Save a Life: most viewed posts in 2013 « Books Can Save A Life

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