Genes and environment: why we do what we do

March 3, 2024

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Genes and environment: why we do what we do

The field of science, known as behavioral neurogenetics, began in the 1990s and I first began to study it during my time at the University of South Florida. Essentially it is the study of the interaction between our genes, our nervous system (including our brains) and the environment. Any creature with a brain (or complex nervous system), functions behaviorally, as a result of this interaction—as we do.

Recently it has been found that genes governing behavior in the brain operate within flexible and contextually responsive regulatory networks. However, conventional genome-wide association studies (GWAS) often overlook this complexity, particularly in humans where controlling environmental variables poses challenges.

In a new article published in the journal PLOS Biology by a multinational team of researchers the importance of integrating environmental effects into genetic research is underscored. The authors discuss how failure to do so can perpetuate deterministic thinking in genetics, as historically observed in the justification of eugenics movements and, more recently, in cases of racially motivated violence (note DT’s Hitleresque speech talking about immigrants “poisoning the blood” of white Americans).

The authors propose expanding GWAS by incorporating environmental data, as demonstrated in studies on aggression in fruit flies, in order to get a broader understanding of the intricate nature of gene-environment interactions. Additionally, they advocate for better integration of insights from animal studies into human research. Animal experiments reveal how both genotype and environment shape brain gene regulatory networks and subsequent behavior, and these findings could better inform similar experiments with people.

What the researchers say: “Advances in genomic technology have really illustrated how changes in the environment lead to changes not only in behavior, but in the expression of genes, in a way that’s not determined just by heredity,” said the co-author of the article. “We now understand that even the same genes can function very differently across individuals depending on their expression.” (“Expression” refers to the way that the genes function in differing conditions.)

Furthermore, the authors stress the importance of multidisciplinary collaboration to understand the roots of behavior, especially among the animal and human research communities. “We really need these kinds of collaborations among social scientists and biologists to illuminate the complexity of gene-environment interactions, especially as they relate to human behavior,” they said.

The article also suggests that emerging technologies such as brain organoids and new forms of brain imaging will be necessary to elucidate the molecular mechanisms linking genetic and environmental influences on behavior.

Ultimately, the authors stress that a paradigm shift is needed in human social and behavioral genomics towards a nuanced comprehension of gene-environment interactions. “Studying the roots of behavior holds great potential for insights that can help better understand brain function, in health and disease. We hope this article helps researchers to make the most of the opportunities while avoiding reductionist pitfalls,” the authors said.

So, what? The article is interesting, even though the author’s conclusions are nothing new: I and Many others have been advocating the same approach for at least 20 years. What has to happen is for us—and this includes HR professionals and corporate and government leaders—to cease to relay on psychometric tests to discover people’s personality and behavioral traits. They are worse than useless because their findings do not accurately tell us anything about the way that a person’s genes will express in differing mental or physical environments—for example when interacting with different people, being fearful or happy, working under different lighting conditions or in a building with or without a view, or getting up at a different time in the morning.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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