Psychology goes molecular. Epigenetics of learning

jan Barciszewski, Dorota Gurda, Władysław Jacek Paluchowski, Elżbieta Hornowska, Aleksandra Jasielska

Abstract


The challenge for psychology is to integrate findings from genetics and environmental (social, biological, chemical) factors, into the study of human behavior and deep understanding of the emergence of different changes in the anatomy, physiology, and chemistry of the nervous system that influence the mental health. Currently, cognitive abilities associated with learning and memory, reasoning, problem solving, and developing relationships are in scope of molecular psychology, which is the study of behavior and its underlying brain systems using the tools of molecular biology. However, studies have demonstrated that DNA sequence variations and rare mutations account for only a small fraction of the risk for inheritance of personality traits and mental illness. The large unaccounted heritability of personality traits and mental health suggest that additional molecular and cellular mechanisms are involved. Various complex gene-environment interactions can lead to different phenotypes. These structural changes may be crucial for the development of mature neural networks that support emotional, cognitive, and social behavior. The generation of different morphology, physiology, and behavioral outcomes from a single genome in response to changes in the environment forms the basis for phenotypic plasticity, which is fundamental to the way organisms cope with environmental variation, navigate the present world, and solve future problems. Epigenetics has major implications for psychology and gives the new answer for the old question- what is the biochemical basis of learning. It is bringing back the leading role of environment and behavior, by including their effects on genome function. In addition, it opens up the possibility of memory being stored in the epigenome, so that our experiences may be embedded in our genome by epigenetic mechanisms. Epigenetics can be described as the study of the complex interactions underlying the development of an organism over its lifetime.

Keywords


behavioral epigenetics; cognitive functions; DNA methylation; epigenetic inheritance; epigenetics; gene-environment interplay; learning; memory

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