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How To: Change Your Child's DNA

When Willie Nelson admonished mamas everywhere to not let their babies grow up to be cowboys, he had no idea how accurate his assessment of a mother's power really was. Turns out, moms have a lot of control over what their babies become, both before and after birth.

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To be a mom (sorry, guys)

Using Your Dinner
For instance, research done at Duke University Medical Center in 2003 revealed that what a mother eats before and during pregnancy can actually switch certain genes on and off in her child. The study took a group of obese, yellow mice and fed them diets that were rich in the nutrients vitamin B12, folic acid, betaine and choline. Despite still carrying their mother's genes for yellow fur and obesity, the baby mice born from this test were brown and remained svelte throughout their lives. This works because the gene that controls both coat color and appetite is affected by a chemical molecule called methyl groups, of which vitamin B12, folic acid, betaine, and choline are chock full. Methyl groups can switch genes on or off or, in some cases, just increase or decrease their impact.

epimice.jpgUnfortunately, while this might be a great thing sometimes, like say if it cut out the gene that might give your kid diabetes or schizophrenia, methyl groups might also turn off "good" genes, like ones that inhibit tumor growth. Right now, nobody really has a good enough idea of how methyl groups work to know how to target in on specific "bad" genes without impacting good ones. We do, however, have plenty of evidence that what pregnant moms eat affects gene expression and can have surprising consequences a long way into their children's lives. For instance, according to an October 2003 New York Times article on the subject, famines that struck Holland after World War II left many fetuses (and their mothers) malnourished. Years later, Holland saw a big increase in the number of adults with schizophrenia, an increase directly linked to what nutrients those adults had (or, rather, hadn't) gotten in the womb.

Using Your Love
Just because you've exited the womb doesn't mean your mother stops having power over your DNA expression. Research done by neurobiologists at Columbia University and Canada's McGill University has shown that maternal behavior after birth can also lead to a child's genes being turned on and off—in this case, genes that will eventually determine how that child parents their own offspring. According to a May 2006 Discover magazine article, neurobiologists studied two groups of rats, those that spent a lot of time grooming and licking their babies and those that didn't. It turned out that, if a female baby rat didn't get licked enough then her body turned off a series of genes that should have produced certain "mothering" and "love" hormones, like estrogen and oxytocin. Deprived of those, the female rat grew up to exhibit the exact same insufficiently nurturing behavior her mother had shown her—thus continuing on the cycle for another generation. On the other hand, when a baby girl rat got an extraordinary amount of lick-based attention from her mommy, she went on to actually have higher-than-average levels of estrogen and oxytocin. Again, the expression of genes and the production of hormones caused her to display maternal behaviors that were similar to her own mother's.

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Can You 'Hear' These Silent GIFs?
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GIFs are silent—otherwise they wouldn't be GIFs. But some people claim to hear distinct noises accompanying certain clips. Check out the GIF below as an example: Do you hear a boom every time the structure hits the ground? If so, you may belong to the 20 to 30 percent of people who experience "visual-evoked auditory response," also known as vEAR.

Researchers from City University London recently published a paper online on the phenomenon in the journal Cortex, the British Psychological Society's Research Digest reports. For their study, they recruited more than 4000 volunteers and 126 paid participants and showed them 24 five-second video clips. Each clip lacked audio, but when asked how they rated the auditory sensation for each video on a scale of 0 to 5, 20 percent of the paid participants rated at least half the videos a 3 or more. The percentage was even higher for the volunteer group.

You can try out the researchers' survey yourself. It takes about 10 minutes.

The likelihood of visual-evoked auditory response, according to the researchers, directly relates to what the subject is looking at. "Some people hear what they see: Car indicator lights, flashing neon shop signs, and people's movements as they walk may all trigger an auditory sensation," they write in the study.

Images packed with meaning, like two cars colliding, are more likely to trigger the auditory illusion. But even more abstract images can produce the effect if they have high levels of something called "motion energy." Motion energy is what you see in the video above when the structure bounces and the camera shakes. It's why a video of a race car driving straight down a road might have less of an auditory impact than a clip of a flickering abstract pattern.

The researchers categorize vEAR as a type of synesthesia, a brain condition in which people's senses are combined. Those with synesthesia might "see" patterns when music plays or "taste" certain colors. Most synesthesia is rare, affecting just 4 percent of the population, but this new study suggests that "hearing motion synesthesia" is much more prevalent.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

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The Surprising Link Between Language and Depression
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Skim through the poems of Sylvia Plath, the lyrics of Kurt Cobain, or posts on an internet forum dedicated to depression, and you'll probably start to see some commonalities. That's because there's a particular way that people with clinical depression communicate, whether they're speaking or writing, and psychologists believe they now understand the link between the two.

According to a recent study published in Clinical Psychological Science, there are certain "markers" in a person's parlance that may point to symptoms of clinical depression. Researchers used automated text analysis methods to comb through large quantities of posts in 63 internet forums with more than 6400 members, searching for certain words and phrases. They also noted average sentence length, grammatical patterns, and other factors.

What researchers found was that a person's use (or overuse) of first-person pronouns can provide some insight into the state of their mental health. People with clinical depression tend to use more first-person singular pronouns, such as "I" and "me," and fewer third-person pronouns, like "they," "he," or "she." As Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Reading and the head of the study, writes in a post for IFL Science:

"This pattern of pronoun use suggests people with depression are more focused on themselves, and less connected with others. Researchers have reported that pronouns are actually more reliable in identifying depression than negative emotion words."

What remains unclear, though, is whether people who are more focused on themselves tend to depression, or if depression turns a person's focus on themselves. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people with depression also use more negative descriptors, like "lonely" and "miserable."

But, Al-Mosaiwi notes, it's hardly the most important clue when using language to assess clinical depression. Far better indicators, he says, are the presence of "absolutist words" in a person's speech or writing, such as "always," "constantly," and "completely." When overused, they tend to indicate that someone has a "black-and-white view of the world," Al-Mosaiwi says. An analysis of posts on different internet forums found that absolutist words were 50 percent more prevalent on anxiety and depression forums, and 80 percent more prevalent on suicidal ideation forums.

Researchers hope these types of classifications, supported by computerized methods, will prove more and more beneficial in a clinical setting.

[h/t IFL Science]

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