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Nature and Nurture: Social Environments Influence Genetic Blueprints
Scientists and parents have long been interested in understanding how a child's genetic "blueprint" and the environment in which he or she lives interact to affect development. A recent study supports the idea that there are multiple windows of opportunity during which what a child is exposed to in daily life can make big differences in his or her cognitive (mental) development, both at that time and in the future. More importantly, these windows of opportunity open much earlier in childhood than realized and missed opportunities have more negative impact than we might like to believe. The study found that being a toddler of low socioeconomic status can actually prevent a child from realizing the his or her genetically-endowed cognitive potential.
Many of our personal characteristics such as appearance, personality, and health are dependent on our genetic make-up. Some are a direct reflection of the coding of our genetic material and some are dependent on the interaction between our genes and our environment, both during gestation and after birth. This means, that genes don't always give us a fixed blueprint. Sometimes, they provide us with a potential which might not come out according to plan. Exposure to toxic substances, microbes, environmental stimuli, neurobiologic stressors, and many more unexpected influences help determine how predictably a genetic plan unfolds.
This understanding, that genetic contributions are influenced – positively and negatively – by the environment, has prompted a wealth of fascinating questions: Can all genetic blueprints be influenced? What types of influences make a difference? Does it matter how much and at what point in development these exposures occur? Can negative influences be compensated for, changed, or predicted? Can we specifically plan positive influences to improve genetic outcome?
Environmental Influences Determine Whether Genetic Potentials Are Realized
This awareness of the interaction between genes and the environment has also changed our fledgling understanding of the double helix of DNA. Genetic contributions are no longer seen as providing unchangeable building blocks. Instead, a child's genetic inheritance is viewed as a set of developmental potentials subject to and actually dependent on non-genetic influences (parents, siblings, nutrition, stimulation, environmental stressors and toxins, and many other influences) in order to fully express its potential.
A recent study by researchers at the University of Texas, Austin, found that a child's environment, even as early as birth to two years, makes a big contribution to his or her cognitive development.(1)
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