News FocusEpigenetics

The Seductive Allure of Behavioral Epigenetics

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Science  02 Jul 2010:
Vol. 329, Issue 5987, pp. 24-27
DOI: 10.1126/science.329.5987.24

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Recent work suggests that so-called epigenetic mechanisms of gene regulation, which alter the activity of genes without changing their DNA sequence, could explain how early life experiences can leave an indelible mark on the brain and influence both behavior and physical health later in life. These effects may even carry over to subsequent generations. Meanwhile, other researchers have implicated epigenetics in drug addiction. Still others have described important roles in cognition (see sidebar). Some researchers speculate that if these rodent findings extend to humans, epigenetics could turn out to be at the heart of some of the most vexing problems in society. These ills include the long-term health problems of people raised in lower socioeconomic environments, the vicious cycle in which abused children grow up to be abusive parents, and the struggles of drug addicts trying to kick the habit. Tempting as such speculation may be, others worry that the young but fast-growing field of behavioral epigenetics is getting ahead of itself. They point out that so far there's very little evidence in humans that epigenetics connects early life experience to behavioral or health problems later in life. Moreover, several experimental obstacles will make finding proof exceedingly difficult.