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.