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Brain, behavior and genetics

| August 29, 2014

Nicolas Wade’s controversial book documenting the genetics of race is most often attacked because of the connections he tries to make between genetic differences and behavioral differences between the races. He has been publicly called out by scientists for this very point.

But there are a few cases where genetic changes clearly influence human behavior. Michael White documents a few for Pacific Standard magazine. Tourette syndrome, for instance, is caused when one enzyme, histidine decarboxylase, fails to do its job of cleaving a chemical group from the neurotransmitter. People with Tourette syndrome have issues controlling inappropriate behavior like cursing.

Anther example is the language-crucial FoxP2 gene. Interestingly, all mammals have this gene. But only humans and Neanderthals have or had two mutations which are crucial to developing language. Even chimps and other apes don’t share it. One British family was found to have FoxP2 mutations by doctors who they came to for help with language impairment:

This small mutation caused an amino acid swap, replacing an arginine with a histidine in a part of the protein called helix 3. This swap alters the function of FoxP2, hampering its ability to bind DNA and control a gene that helps form contact points between neurons in the brain. The ability to use and understand language is severely damaged by this single amino acid switch.

There are more, White lists, that likely work in concert with other genes to control disorders like autism, anorexia and obsessive compulsive disorder. These are likely not the only cause of the disease, as in the case of histidine decarboxylase and Tourette syndrome or FoxP2 and language development, but they are at lease one mechanism by which a condition can be acquired.

And, we know from recent reports just how incredibly complicated those biological systems controlling neurological conditions can be. Take schizophrenia, long the subject of genetic analysis, which is just now uncovering some genetic targets of the disease.

Regardless of where the science now lies, we know that biology controls behavior. Our actions and thoughts aren’t magic, they rely on the biochemistry of neurotransmitters and nerve signals. They have physical substrates that are controlled by our genes, says White:

Will we ever be able to reason from the behavior of proteins and cells to the behavior of human beings? This can be a dangerous question because it is hard to study and easy to speculate. But it’s a crucial one because we won’t fully understand our most human traits—personality, behavior, language—without making sense of the molecules behind them.

Meredith Knight is a blogger for Genetic Literacy Project and a freelance science and health writer in Austin, Texas. Follow her @meremereknight.

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The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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