Nature vs. Nurture: Navigating Neuroepigenetics

The debate regarding the origins of human behavior, and the conflict between nature versus nurture, has been philosophized, researched, and argued for over a millennium. In the last 30 years, however, a field of genetic-biology has positioned itself to wholly restructure the fundamental basis for the debate: neuroepigenetics. Neuroepigenetics is the study of how dynamic epigenetic changes affect the nervous system, and concurrently, neurological behaviors. Within this emerging field, scientists have increasingly found that the dichotomy between nurture and nature has been widely misunderstood. Rather, as pharmacology professor and neurobiology expert J. David Sweatt explains, “It is now clear that there is a dynamic interplay between genes and experience, a clearly delineated and biochemically driven mechanistic interface between nature and nurture.”

Recent studies have found strong links between neuroepigenetic modifications and neurological conditions such as addiction, epilepsy, dyslexia, Alzheimer’s disease, and many other cognitive disorders. Research indicates that environmental experiences including toxic exposure, stress, early learning, and maternal behavior can cause actual genomic modifications: adjustments that ultimately create changes in gene readout, which can permanently alter neural functions.

Having a more nuanced understanding of neuroepigenetic changes may radically alter the ways in which we view, examine, and evaluate neurological behaviors, and how various neurological conditions are treated. With this foresight, a team of researchers at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital have developed a PET radiotracer that can reveal epigenetic activity. Regarding the value of developing technology to better understand the interaction between genes and environment, Dr. Jacob Hooker, senior author of the radiotracer report, stated: “This could allow us to investigate questions such as why some people genetically predisposed to a disease are protected from it? Why events during early life and adolescence have such a lasting impact on brain health? Is it possible to ‘reset’ gene expression in the human brain?”

While neuroepigenetic research is still in the nascent stages of development, the very emergence of the field has given way to a more complex understanding of the interplay between human behavior and genetics. The longstanding nature versus nurture debate can now transform into a new, more comprehensive discussion that better addresses and understands neurological conditions, and seeks to address them through the development of more advanced, personalized treatments.

Sweatt, J. (2013). The Emerging Field of Neuroepigenetics. Neuron, 80(3), 624-632.

The Benefits of Energy Healing

In a therapeutic sense, energy healing describes any therapy that aims to affect and impact the energy field: the ‘invisible forces in and around the body’ that many term as ‘personal space,’ but with compassion and positive intention—often in an effort to encourage the body’s natural ability to heal. The practice of energy healing can take many forms, but often involves gentle touch and guidance on breathing regulation.

Quoted in U.S. News & World Report, Diane Goldner, an energy healer in Santa Monica, California, uses the analogy of fixing a problem on a computer document: not by clicking into the specific document, but rather by altering something broader within the computer’s infrastructure. “It’s like opening a zip file and all the contents of the zip file open up,” states Goldner, who was once a skeptical journalist covering the topic, before she changed careers after becoming firmly convinced of the power of energy healing.

Dr. Ann Marie Chiasson, an integrative family medicine physician and co-director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine’s fellowship in integrative medicine, asserts that research in adults indicates that energy healing can not only decrease pain, but also increase relaxation, and even improve dementia symptoms and alleviate emotional suffering & distress. While the evidence is more limited in younger children, a specific clinical report on pediatric integrative medicine penned by the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Section on Integrative Medicine included biofield and energy therapies like ‘healing touch, therapeutic touch, and spiritual healing’ among safe and effective complementary & alternative medicine therapies for children.

Moreover, a 2012 study focused on pediatric cancer patients demonstrated that children who received ‘healing touch’ reported decreased fatigue, stress, and pain, along with their caregivers and families. An additional 2015 study of infants in the NICU found that measures of oxygen content in blood, heart rate, and pain significantly improved after receiving healing touch and massage. “When used in conjunction with conventional therapies, children get the best of all possible outcomes,” states Weydert, the chair-elect of the AAP’s Section on Integrative Medicine.

One of the primary reasons that energy healing might prove effective lies in its use of touch: largely attributable to the hormone oxytocin, which promotes and increases trust and social bonding, and helps regulate the body’s overall stress response. Chiasson says that the “right quality of touch…creates oxytocin the fastest…it has to be compassionate or caring or loving touch.”

Recent Study Finds Kids Are Eating Too Much Sugar

In June of 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study with chilling results regarding children’s nutrition & sugar consumption. The study, presented at the American Society for Nutrition’s annual meeting during Nutrition 2018 in Boston, assessed sugar consumption among children less than 2 years old: the first time that a study had analyzed “added sugar” consumption among children in such a young cohort.

While the American Heart Association already recommends that very young children, under the age of 2, always avoid food with added sugars—including baked goods, candy, sugary drinks, etc.—researchers at the CDC have found that many parents do not follow these guidelines.

Lead study author Kirsten Herrick, a nutritional epidemiologist from the CDC, and her team found that the amount of added sugar increased along with a child’s age: for the children between 6 and 11 months, 61 percent of the sugar in their diet was added sugar; yet by the time children reached between 1 and 2 years old, that amount was even higher. Almost 99 percent of the sugar consumed by those children was added: i.e., not naturally occurring in the food items, and equaled an approximate average of 5.5 teaspoons each day.

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for America do not include recommendations regarding “added sugar” for any children under 2 years of age; for children between 2 and 19, the recommendation is a daily limit of 6 teaspoons. Nevertheless, a CDC report confirms that on average, adult Americans consume 19.5 teaspoons of sugar each day—far exceeding the recommended limits.

Excessive sugar consumption is unhealthy for many reasons; while many problems can manifest during childhood, including obesity, cavities asthma, other major health issues such as cardiovascular disease and cancer can occur later in life. Moreover, statistics demonstrate that added sugar is particularly damaging for children, as it sets diet preferences that can ultimately lead them to make poor nutritional choices later in life. And until recently, young children and teens were not diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, yet given the large percentage of American youth that are overweight, children as young as 10 years old are now developing diabetes.