In 2010, Steven Pinker, a Psychologist and professor at Harvard University, wrote an article titled “My Genome, My Self” for The New York Times Magazine explaining his involvement in the Personal Genome Project and what it hoped to achieve. Pinker had his genome sequenced (which in layman’s terms means he allowed for his DNA to be read) and displayed it so that he and the public can view what genes and traits make up his composition. Pinker states that through the personal genome project, we will soon “give people an unprecedented opportunity to contemplate their own biological and even psychological makeups.” Pinker goes on to describe Genomics’ potential:

People have long been familiar with tests for heritable diseases, and the use of genetics to trace ancestry – the new Roots – is becoming familiar as well. But we are only beginning to recognize that our genome also contains information about our temperaments and abilities. Affordable genotyping may offer new kinds of answers to the question “Who am I?” – to ruminations about our ancestry, our vulnerabilities, our character, and our choices in life.

If Genomics can do what it suggests, then that can give us the ability to predict and understand the pieces of our being that we thought were beyond the physiological. It is no surprise to learn that there are genes which can indicate balding, skin color, or height, but Pinker states that Genomics is more far-reaching and can even tell us things about our personality or temperament. Introversion/extroverted, liberal/conservative, conforming/rebellious, religious/atheistic… these were once characteristics thought to be learned or at least a conscious choice made by the individual. It is now being argued, though, that these characteristics are less likely instilled and are just a part of our make-up. Pinker quotes psychologist Eric Turkheimer as saying, “The nature-nurture debate is over… All human behavioral traits are heritable.” This is a bit of an overstatement and Pinker qualifies Turkheimer’s quote by saying that we have to rethink how much emphasis we place on the environment’s role in shaping our personalities and instead shift the focus to our genetic code. To completely ignore culture’s role would be an obvious mistake but it may not be as prominent a deciding factor as once thought.

What sparked my interest, is the possibility that Genomics may help simplify the process for those seeking help for mental health issues. Anyone who has dealt with mental health problems, for either themselves or a loved one, can attest that it is not as simple a process as going to a doctor, getting diagnosed, and then beginning treatment. When a person is dealing with depression, addiction, psychosis, etc. there are obstacles that can arise when it becomes years before a person receives proper treatment–or any at all. The wrong treatment can be a painful experience and after many failed attempts, one may lose faith in therapy and medications. Doctors and experts have a difficult job in trying to assess and diagnose a patient, and sometimes the only course of action is trial and error. Genomics may be able to bypass the countless tests and crippling health care costs and allow physicians and families to simply read from a sheet the exact ailments, proclivities, disorders, etc. a person is susceptible to.

Pinker provides an example for how this process works. He brings up Dopamine, a molecular currency associated with desire, gratification, and focus. The gene for one kind of Dopamine receptor, DRD4, can vary and has been associated with “approach related” personality traits such as novelty seeking, sensation seeking, and extroversion. Another receptor, DRD2, functions differently and causes the dopamine system to work less effectively. DRD2 has been associated with impulsiveness, obesity, and substance abuse. If a family can be informed that one of its members carries a gene that has a high association with substance abuse then they can try to preempt this behavior and structure their loved one’s life in a way that avoids using addictive substances. Viewing addiction and obesity in this way is also educational for the public. There is a stigma attached to these two groups, but, if they could be viewed as genetic predispositions, then maybe we could become more sympathetic as a culture.

At this juncture, the genetic code that can be read only speaks in probabilities and therefore cannot state with 100% certainty what will manifest. Their understanding can only tell people what traits are associated with certain genes. For instance, a 60 year old man might have a gene that says he has an 80% chance of going bald, but if he never does then that information is useless. Pinker describes how this information is useful when discussing populations, but once its focus is turned on a single person, then it can be rendered less meaningful. This may sound like it undercuts all of genomics potential, but, as mentioned earlier, researchers are only at the very beginning of its understanding. Most, if not all of Freud’s work has been discounted but that cannot down play its importance. Freud shifted the focus and laid the foundation for a new approach to mental health resulting in medications and therapies that completely transform lives.

Genomics, paired with psychology/psychiatry, will hopefully reach a point where it will help stem the tide of the mental health crisis plaguing our population and help alleviate the suffering that millions needlessly experience. There have been great strides made in the last ten years in genomics and, as Pinker points out, the science is still in its infancy. Just like the difficulties psychology has with conquering a definitive understanding of the human mind, the genetic code is also as infinitely complex and scientists are just getting started.

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