When Dr. Michael Meaney enters his research laboratory in Montreal, it’s to mixed reviews. Some freeze and panic, others stand at attention but then resume eating their lunches, without a care, or even so much as a “hello.” We’re talking about rats, here. With people, the reviews are pretty much unanimously positive. Dr. Meaney, the McGill professor at the department of Psychiatry, Neurology and Neurosurgery, is commanding much attention these days – he has twice received invitations to confer with the Dalai Lama. But back in the lab, it’s the rats he is concerned with; he’s been working with them for almost two decades. And when he claps his hands, all the rats freeze at the sound as they should, but some, the better adjusted ones, are soon able to return to eating, or doing whatever it is rats do, realizing that the scientist poses no threat. Others – those poor vermin who are poorly adjusted – remain immobilized for upward of 10 minutes.1 Why the different reactions? The answer stems from a new twist on a very old debate. You might recall the nature-versus-nurture discourse from your high-school days. Teacher after teacher for years has posed the same question: Is who we are and how we behave a function of our biology determined by our genes, or a result of our environment and how we’ve been socialized? Forget what you thought you knew. The old terms, and the debate itself, are changing.
The reason for the change? The human genome project – started in 1990 and finally completed in 2003 – provided new insights into how the body develops and behaves by charting the sequence and function of particular genes. In so doing, science left the nature-versusnurture squabble and shifted to an emphasis on nature and nurture; how environmental factors interact with our biology. It is a question of interplay, and the new discoveries are incredible. Emerging to the forefront is the study of epigenetics: How physical and social environments affect gene expression without altering the DNA structure. In short, how nurture can affect nature; how environment can change a person’s biology. Highschool students may soon be jotting down a whole new set of notes.
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