Saturday, 22 August 2015

Social epigenetics: predicting future outcomes

Michael Kobor`s research is about understanding how early life experiences can literally get under the skin to affect health, wellbeing and behaviour, in many cases across the lifespan.

Epigenetics helps him to understand the circuitry between society and the cell, and the cell and society. The field he focusses on is the regulation of genes. He is trying to understand how the 25, 000 genes in the body are regulated.

He claims that it is possible to see an epigenetic profile in 15 year old kids that can be traced back to infancy or pre-school when their parents were stressed.

More recently the research has gone to a deeper level, to focus on the white blood cells, because one of his hypotheses is that people are affected through their immune systems.

"If you happen to grow up in poor circumstances you have a different profile of these epigenetic markers, a profile correlated to the way our immune system reacts to challenges, suggesting that these epigenetic modifications can mediate the effect of the social environment on to the immune system lasting all the way into adulthood."

There are a variety of studies that follow cohorts of children in British Columbia, California and across the world.

He believes the research is important because it provides a biochemical mechanism by which the environment speaks to the genes.

"To us that is really a profound finding. Second of all we are interested in the functional linkages to the immune system and futhermore to stress responses in people because we do feel that much of our health and our behaviour is linked to proper functioning of the immune system and lastly it is really important because it paves the way for much deeper studies. "

"We`re very excited about the potential for the future. We are building a really comprehensive suite of studies that will allow us to assess very carefully how these epigenetic changes are actually affected by different environments, in time, sometimes overlapping, sometimes distinct environments."

Is there a particular time in the child`s life when the epigenome is more susceptible to influences by the environment and ultimately of course what are the different outcomes between these epigenetic changes that are being induced by the environment?

This research may be somewhat beyond the mainstream but it follows the political profile of other studies in the early interventionist programme:

(1) The lifelong effects of poor bonding with parents - affective disorders - which actually do not appear in the DSM V manual of psychiatric disorders. Nevertheless they allow early years practitioners to be experts in relationships.

(2) Brain damage caused by deprived early environments which have been debunked by neuroscientists themselves but allow early years practitioners to be experts in child development.

(3) And now, social epigenetics which hypothesises that deprived children get the wrong genes switched on, which compromises their immune systems. Time will tell what early years practitioners are expected to make of this, but stress management in the early years comes to mind. (That will involve managing the parents.)

All of these studies explain future outcomes by concentrating on the first few years of life. They completely sidestep the social, political and economic structures which disadvantage the poor throughout their lives - but that`s the idea.

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