Can nurturing environments “Turn On” protective genes against mental illness in children?

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Yes, indeed, through a process called epigenetics. Chances are you’ve never heard of changes in gene expression since most people were taught your genes are for life.  Well, we do have our genes for life—but many of our genes change their expression based on our social environments.  Many of the genes that change the most involve our brains.

Consider the genes regulating Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, or BDNF for short. Feeling depressed? Many medications change your BDNF to feel less depressed?  Having trouble learning new things? You might not be producing enough BDNF, as a result of not enough sleep or physical activity.  I like to think of BDNF as “brain fertilizer” as it makes the neurons extend their dendrites, a bit like adding roots. BDNF increases neural connections.  You can get some more info at the National Institutes of Health, and another link has a good overview about what BDNF does for human behavior,.

What many families or policy makers don’t know is that some genes, like the 16 gene variations of BDNF, “listen” to the social and biological environment. If the gene variation “hears”, for example, lots of threats coming from other humans or risk to future, the gene may express itself differently. If the gene “hears” reinforcement and support from other humans, it may express itself differently—preferentially calculating a longer life.

These expressions have been selected by evolution and have reproductive advantage in different circumstances.  Remember, since the invention of stone tools, humans became the worst predator of other humans, and other humans became the major source of safety. That is a unique evolutionary paradox of humans.

Much of my preventions science has been about early protective strategies during the early childhood period from ages 3-8 in the U.S, and other countries, with partners as diverse as Sesame Street, the Pentagon and U.S. Canadian, New Zealand and now European governmental agencies grades. Since 1999, I’ve worked on something called PAX Good Behavior Game, which has powerful protective effects on children’s futures 10-20 years later.  For example, one or two years of exposure to PAX Good Behavior Game could have these long-term benefits for each cohort of nearly 4 million first graders each year in America, based on the prior studies:

In the short-term, the same strategy averts or reduces bullying, ADHD, and conduct problems, as well as increases reading test scores and other important outcomes. These are extraordinary changes from a simple program that teaches self-regulation to children, reduces exposure to peer aggression, rewards peer cooperation, and helps children experience a more positive daily life every day in school.  All of this happens as a daily routine, not as a curriculum or series of lessons.

With all these long-term behavior changes, my colleagues and I at Johns Hopkins (where we are involved in ongoing studies of the PAX Good Behavior Game) have long thought that changes MUST be happening in the expression of genes like those found in BDNF.  It turns out to be true.

A bright young scientist at Hopkins lead such a study to measure such changes, using fancy tools by comparing children who were randomly assigned to control condition first-grade classrooms, to first-grade classrooms with what is now the PAX Good Behavior Game, or to first-grade classrooms where every parent could access parenting supports. Dr. Rashelle Musci and others extracted single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) from the BDNF gene samples from all three groups of children, just after they graduated from high school. About 14 years after the young people had experienced the experimental conditions.

While the preventive interventions tested in the classrooms or among the families were not rocket science, the gene analyses are.  You can read more about the technical details from the study [1], which I am happy to share. What happened? Well about half of the children had a particular group of variants of BDNF genes, associated with the disposition toward aggression and impulsivity. These are the same gene clusters that predict longer-term problems of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. That group of genetically and socially at-risk children were most profoundly affected by the PAX Good Behavior Game, and secondarily by the parenting supports offered to the families.

From all this, we now infer that the BDNF gene expression was changed by the environment.  Recently, new methods can allow us to see the traces of how the gene expression was changed, because there detectable markers on the genes to reveal the traces of the changes. In our newer studies in Manitoba and the U.S., we plan to set in motion instrumentation to measure these changes. What is remarkable is that a nurturing environment, vis à vis a medication, made this difference.  What is further remarkable is that either nurturing environment left a permanent change on both behavioral traits, which medications do not. To explain the study visually, I have created an illustration that you can review.

What does all this mean for the children’s mental-health network and for policy? Quite a lot! First, it’s a very clear indication that at least some serious mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders are preventable, and the gene expression change nails the point.  That’s great news for families.  Second, it means that we really, really need to pay attention to chapter 13 of the 2009 Institute of Medicine Report on the Prevention of Mental, Emotional and Behavioral Disorders [2]. That chapter details significant actions that could rival the mobilization to prevent polio.

As it turns out, we have better science to today to prevent mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders than we did with Jonas Salk’s study showing positive expression of antibodies against polio.  We have far more children and adults proportionally die or will be harmed from mental illness than ever happened with polio.

Let us act for our children’s futures, all our children’s futures.

By Dennis D. Embry, Ph.D.,

Senior Scientist, PAXIS Institute, Tucson

Co-Investigator, Johns Hopkins Center for Prevention and Early Intervention

Co-Investigator, Manitoba Centre for Health Policy


1. Musci RJ, Bradshaw CP, Maher B, Uhl GR, Kellam SG, Ialongo NS: Reducing aggression and impulsivity through school-based prevention programs: A gene by intervention interactionPrevention Science 2013: No Pagination Specified.

2. O'Connell ME, Boat T, Warner KE (eds.): Preventing Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders Among Young People: Progress and Possibilities. Washington, DC: Institute of Medicine; National Research Council; 2009.

embryDennis D. Embry, Ph.D., is a prominent prevention scientist in the United States and Canada, trained as clinician  and developmental and child psychologist. He is president/senior scientist at PAXIS Institute in Tucson and co-investigator at Johns Hopkins University and the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy. His work and that of colleagues is cited in 2009 the Institute of Medicine Report on The Prevention of Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders Among Young People. Clinically his work has focused on children and adults with serious mental illnesses. He was responsible for drafting of the letter signed by  23 scientists, who collectively represent scores of randomized prevention trials of mental illnesses published in leading scientific journals. In March 2014, his work and the work of several signatories was featured in a Prime-TV special on the Canadian Broadcast Corporation on the prevention of mental illnesses among children—which have become epidemic in North America.


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