Thwarting a Genetic Predisposition to Risky Behaviors

The National Institutes of Health is reporting a fascinating experiment in which tweens and early teens were tested for the presence of a specific allele that correlates with risky behaviors, e.g., drinking, drugging and sexual activity. Some youths and their parents were coached on how to avoid such behaviors while others were not. As the NIH press release reports:

A family-based prevention program designed to help adolescents avoid substance use and other risky behavior proved especially effective for a group of young teens with a genetic risk factor contributing toward such behavior, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Georgia. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), components of the National Institutes of Health, supported the study, which appears in the May/June issue of Child Development.

For two-and-a-half years, investigators monitored the progress of 11-year-olds enrolled in a family-centered prevention program called Strong African American Families (SAAF), and a comparison group. A DNA analysis showed some youths carried the short allele form of 5-HTTLPR. This fairly common genetic variation, found in over 40 percent of people, is known from previous studies to be associated with impulsivity, low self-control, binge drinking, and substance use.

The researchers found that adolescents with this gene who participated in the SAAF program were no more likely than their counterparts without the gene to have engaged in drinking, marijuana smoking, and sexual activity. Moreover, youths with the gene in the comparison group were twice as likely to have engaged in these risky behaviors as those in the prevention group.

"The findings underscore that ‘nurture’ can influence ‘nature’ during adolescence, a pivotal time when delaying the start of alcohol consumption and other risky behaviors can have a significant impact on healthy child development," says NIAAA Acting Director Kenneth R. Warren, Ph.D. "This study is one of the first to combine prevention research with a gene-environment study design."

"This study is an excellent example of how we can target prevention interventions based on a person’s genetic make-up to reduce their substance abuse risk," says NIDA Director Nora Volkow, M.D.

The study is interesting, but it is very early days for this kind of genetic counseling intervention. One day parents may well want this kind of information so that they can figure out how best to guide the development of their children. On the other hand, one can see how public school officials and other bureaucrats could misuse such iniformation to pigeonhole children as "bad seeds" and turn their genetic risk factors into a self-fulfilling prophecies. 

See also my "Born to Be Wild" column on a similar study in New Zealand here. Whole NIH press release here.

Kudos to Katie Drummond over at True/Slant. 

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  • MaterialMonkee||

    Next time my girlfriend finds me passed out on the step outside my house

    "Don't blame me
    The 5-HTTLPR made me do it!"

    That explains so much about me and my drunken Welsh family

  • Shannon Love||

    Wow, it's almost like a strong family support system had evolved over generations to compensate for genetic variations which are maladapted to the modern world.

    n the other hand, one can see how public school officials and other bureaucrats could misuse such iniformation to pigeonhole children as "bad seeds" and turn their genetic risk factors into a self-fulfilling prophecies.

    Funny that no one thinks that genetic screening for diseases like diabetes will make people more likely to develop diabetes. I think that understanding that a person maybe hardwired to be more impulsive than most will lead people to emphasize special self-control training just as awareness of a risk of diabetes leads people to alter their dietary and exercise behaviors to prevent the disease.

  • Art-P.O.G.||

    It really is like G.I. Joe said in those PSAs about knowing being half the battle.

  • Seward||

    Being the sort of guy who engages in "risky behaviors" like mountaineering, I always wonder if it and activities like it will ever be viewed as a proper area of government regulation.

  • ||

    It really is like G.I. Joe said in those PSAs about knowing being half the battle.

    PORK CHOP SANDWICHES

  • Xeones||

    I always wonder if it and activities like it will ever be viewed as a proper area of government regulation.

    Sadly, 'tis most likely a matter of 'when,' not 'if.'

  • SpongePaul||

    yeah lets breed out any disent!.... I am sorry mam, your fetus has the gene for free thinking, that wont work in Obamaland, please go have the mandatory, yet federal insured abortion of your noncompliant egg/sperm combo.

  • Xeones||

    Hey kids, i'm a computer! Stop all the down-loadin'!

  • JP||

    Where can I get one of those signs?

  • ||

    HEY! I designed the 5-HTT assay in our clinical lab.

    I'm a l/s heterozygote.

    Want to be tested? Let me know :)

  • ||

    With that out of the way... it's pretty stupid to try to link 5-HTT polymorphism to behavior. It's one thing to relate it to drug response, as that's a solid receptor-drug interaction that can be measured.

    An effect on behavior? Way too squishy.

  • ||

    My biggest concern is if Seward expects the community to pay to have him rescued when he's stranded on the mountain. Is there a gene that tells us that? :)

    I don't mind if an insurance company I can choose to be the customer of wants to do a DNA test to calculate my health insurance risk, but I don't want the state to have anything to do with it. Consider me one of the people who expects misuse by the government and one of the people who think health insurance should have risk based pricing just like life and auto.

  • Seward||

    First they came for the smokers and I did not speak out.

    Then they came for the transfats eaters and I did not speak out.

    Then they came for my crampons.

  • ||

    I thought you said tampons.
    O_o

  • Seward||

    Nick,

    No, I don't expect that. I wish communities would stop doing that it. If they would I think it would encourage more insurance, voluntary societies, etc. in this area.

  • Seward||

    Brownyn,

    No, crampons.

  • IceTrey||

    How come they list only "negative" traits. People with this gene are probably the ones who settled the West, crossed oceans, conquered space, start businesses, sky dive and all the other activities in which timidity is the negative trait.

  • ||

    the presence of a specific allele that correlates with risky behaviors, e.g., drinking, drugging and sexual activity

    Think of how much money you could save in bars if this test was cheap, fast and portable.

    To be sure, asking to draw blood in bars is a bit declasse,

  • Xeones||

    Depends on the bar, SugarFree.

  • ||

    True. And the test wouldn't obviate The Dour Friend effect. Maybe market it with some sort of repellent spray.

  • Joel||

    Yeah, yeah, sure. Whatever. Screw the research and statistics; just tell me where I can get one of those signs!

  • Mike||

    This study sounds great, but the problem with most of these "look at what this program does for at-risk kids!" studies is fade-out. The programs have real effects for a couple of years, and by 6-8 years later, the effects are completely gone (Head Start is a good example of this, as are abstinence pledges). Let's wait about five more years. If there is still a benefit, then let's celebrate. It's tough to overcome genetic predispositions.

  • ||

    Turns out we aren't people with free wills, but are just bundles of neurons and involuntary responses. So, when will Reason be renamed Tic? Is a libertarian disposition one that can be deleted by genetic engineering? Sometimes it appears that task has already been done on much of the Reason staff.

  • MJ||

    " always wonder if it and activities like it will ever be viewed as a proper area of government regulation."

    "Sadly, 'tis most likely a matter of 'when,' not 'if.'"

    We are already there and have been for some time. What do you think mandatory car seat belt and motorcycle helmet laws are about? Noy wearing your selt belt or helmet endangers the health and life of no one but you.

  • MJ||

    "People with this gene are probably the ones who settled the West, crossed oceans, conquered space, start businesses, sky dive and all the other activities in which timidity is the negative trait."

    Timidity in the populace is a positive trait to progressive statists. They have scientists working on how to eliminate the risk taking gene, and the orgasm as well.

  • IceTrey||

    LOL. I think they already have that, it's called Prozac.

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