Mya Cahana
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Are Our Genetics Set in Stone?

— Mya Cahana

It may seem tempting to think that our genetics are determined from the moment we are born. The field of psychology and genetics, called epigenetics, challenges this idea. 

Epigenetics is the study of how your environment impacts your genetics. Outside factors such as culture, community, home life, and trauma may all play a role in the way your DNA is read. These factors can change your likelihood of developing addictions, mental illnesses, your reaction to stress, your behavior, and more. 

Epigenetic changes are not permanent. Your environment and experiences don’t actually change your genes themselves, rather the way your body reads and interprets them. DNA methylation is one of the main examples of how epigenetics work. In this process, a group of molecules called a methyl group attach themselves onto a DNA sequence, inhibiting certain proteins that convert DNA into RNA. RNA is essentially a messenger: it sends genetic information to our cells so they can create proteins to complete their necessary processes. When this conversion does not happen, the gene cannot “turn on” and express itself. This process allows our genes to be expressed (turned on and off) in certain ways only when needed. 

Epigenetics help us understand how addiction and mental illnesses develop, and how we can prevent them. Previously, it was thought that our likelihood of inheriting addiction and mental health issues depended only on our genetics and predispositions (basically, if it runs in your family), as the genes associated with these issues can be passed down through generations. However, epigenetics opens up another way of developing or avoiding mental health conditions and addiction issues: upbringing and exposure. Even if you have a predisposition for alcohol abuse, your upbringing and lack of exposure to alcohol matters. If you don’t drink alcohol, there is no opportunity for your “alcoholism gene” to express itself. On the flip side, even if you do not have a genetic marker for alcohol abuse, addiction can develop if you have constant exposure to alcohol. 

Overall, epigenetics helps us understand that we can defy our predispositions by making healthy choices. Our genes themselves may be ‘set in stone,’ but we have influence over the way we live!