Tuesday, September 16, 2014


One must be careful when using words that do not have an agreed upon definition.  Epigenetics is one of those words.  We have a fairly sound definition of genetics and we know that epi comes from Greek meaning upon or over. However, when the two are combined there is no agreed upon definition in the scientific community. 

The NIH "Roadmap Epigenomics Project," ongoing as of 2013, uses the following definition: "Epigenetics is an emerging frontier of science that involves the study of changes in the regulation of gene activity and expression that are not dependent on gene sequence. For purposes of this program, epigenetics refers to both heritable changes in gene activity and expression (in the progeny of cells or of individuals) and also stable, long-term alterations in the transcriptional potential of a cell that are not necessarily heritable. While epigenetics refers to the study of single genes or sets of genes, epigenomics refers to more global analyses of epigenetic changes across the entire genome."

As you can see the word has such a broad definition that it can cover almost any influence someone might think they have proved has occurred to a gene. Recently, the British Journal of Psychiatry issued a retraction concerning an article about the epigenetic aspects of bipolar disorder.  The problem seemed to be that one of the investigators fabricated some of his evidence.  That is called making the study show what you want it to.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Behavioral epigenetics is the field of study examining the role of epigenetics in shaping animal (including human) behaviour. It is an experimental science that seeks to explain how nurture shapes nature, where nature refers to biological heredity and nurture refers to virtually everything that occurs during the life-span (e.g., social-experience, diet and nutrition, and exposure to toxins). Behavioral epigenetics attempts to provide a framework for understanding how the expression of genes is influenced by experiences and the environment to produce individual differences in behaviour, cognition personality, and mental health.”  

This field of study is even more problematic than just plain epigenetics. They can’t tell you what social experiences produce certain behaviors much less what role a certain gene plays. I have no doubt that one day we will know a lot more than we do today, but I fear too many people read a headline and believe we are already there when we are not even at the starting gate yet.

My reason for writing this is simple.  I just want to say that the old saying that “if it sounds too good to be true it probably is” is wise advice to guide one in the ever increasing debate about mental illness.  You will hear everything from it was something made up by the pharmaceuticals companies along with psychiatrists to we need to make decisions for people too sick to know what is in their best interest.  Both sides quote studies and science. Both sides have a personal interest in winning this debate.

For what it is worth; this is what I believe to be as close to the truth as we know things today. I have a bipolar disorder that has a genetic and biological component that has caused me to develop serious psycho-social-spiritual problems.  These were not helped by severe childhood sexual abuse over years starting before I went to school.  Being in the Army Medical Corps during Vietnam did not help either.  Living on the streets in several different cities at different times did not either.  Being locked up at least 10 times did not help with the longest period being eight months.  So I get upset when someone says there is not any such thing as mental illness, but I also get just as angry when people think they have the right to violate the human rights and dignity of people and lock them up pretending they know best.

I wish there was a group that fought for our freedom without denying there was any such thing as a broken brain.  That fought for Our Right To Be Free unless we commit a crime and take suicide off the list of crimes and give us our bodies back.  A group that worried more about our right to be seen as fully human and treated as such than they were about the latest scientific fad.  I can keep hoping such a group will appear.

© Ed Cooper: Folk Philosopher, September 16, 2014, Stoney Creek, Tennessee

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