Putting Genetic Studies into Perspective

The genetics field has grown dramatically in recent years as we look to our DNA to explain our health and predict future diseases and disorders. At-home genetic testing kits are readily available and relatively affordable these days, though the tests may not live up to the hype and raise some ethical questions.

Beyond pursuing answers about our health, researchers, funders, and the public have grown increasingly interested in behavioral genetics, as we seek insight into cognition, intelligence, and personality. But don’t be too quick to buy into simple causal explanations about why you may have certain traits. For example, scientists argued in a New York Magazine article last year that Catechol-O-methyl transference may cause certain people to handle stress better than others. In our new briefing paper, “How Should We Be Thinking About Genetic Studies?” a number of experts note that the science is not that clear-cut:

“Suppose you have the particular gene variant. So maybe you’re one or two percent more likely than someone who doesn’t have the variant to be able to deal with stress or whatever trait that paper is talking about,” says [Christopher Chabris, Ph.D., a psychologist at Union College]. “But it’s not deterministic. Even if you have a particular variant, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to have the phenotype.”

And it’s not even just a matter of genetics. Nita Farahany, Ph.D., J.D., director of Duke University’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, explains in the paper that factors of the environment–such as poverty, abuse, and education level–play a key role in the development of certain behaviors.

[In her 2013 Society for Neuroscience talk], Farahany…discussed how the low expression of MAOA crossed with childhood maltreatment was linked to violent and anti-social behavior later in life. “It shouldn’t surprise you too much in looking at this data that this research has come into a number of criminal cases,” she informed the audience. But her key point was that violence was as much linked to the environment as it was to the gene—and it can be difficult to tease apart the individual contributions of the two.

So how can we educate the public to read between the lines in genetic reporting? Farahany advises adding context to the dialogue.

“We need to explain the context of genetics in a very different way now that the technology and science has improved,” says Farahany. “Now more than ever we must help people understand there’s no such thing as a single gene for any behavior, but a complex set of genetic, epigenetic, and environmental factors that influence behaviors.

For more information about genetics reporting and how to put it into perspective, read the full briefing paper here.

–Ann L. Whitman

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