* * *
So once again, my boss is making waves in the news, this time with actual science, which is a bit of relief. A study mostly carried out by one of our post-doctoral fellows has been getting a great amount of media attention, as it's a very interesting finding. He shows that suicide victims with a history of abuse carry a higher amount of an alteration to DNA structure (but not sequence) that controls the expression of a gene involved in the stress response (glucocorticoid receptor Nr3c1 promoter methylation in hippocampus, for those keeping track). This alteration may "silence" the gene and have rendered these people more subject to anxiety and other negative effects of stress.
My favorite thing about this study has been the press, particularly the BBC's headline of "Child abuse 'impacts stress gene'." One thing I can't figure out about the BBC is why they put those little single quotation marks around a couple words in about 50% of their headlines: "Staff 'too timid' on child abuse," "'Ethical' stem cell hope," or "Veterans at 'higher suicide risk.'"
What do these little quotes mean? They certainly aren't a direct quotes, as my boss would beat you about the head and shoulders for saying the glucocorticoid receptor is a stress gene. They seem to serve no purpose other than to confuse people who want to use real quotation marks on their headlines for citation purposes.
In any case, people tend to take findings like this WAY too far to support whatever point of view that they have. Take the CBC's angle on the story, for example. We've got a journalist claiming that "in a way... the men were programmed to be more vulnerable to overwhelming feelings of despair," which didn't come from any of the researchers on this study (trust me, I know them all personally). Then we have a pharmacologist saying we should aim to "identify these people and then probably offer them some sort of intervention," which is interesting because 1) we have no indication whatsoever that the methylation changes actually cause the suicides, and 2) it's a real bastard trying to get those samples out of living human brains.
From the blogosphere, I think my favorite quote so far has been something along the lines of how obvious it is that abuse is bad and should we really spend millions on research to prove it? I can hardly claim impartiality here, seeing as how my salary gets paid directly from those grants, but the answer is "yes we should, because it's not obvious at all."
OK, so it's obvious that beating your kids is bad (unless you're Russell Peters), but what isn't obvious is why, on a biological level, child abuse is harmful for development. Is it obvious that DNA methylation patterns along the Nr3c1 promoter would be different in the hippocampus of abused suicide victims? Is it obvious that beating your children is like picking up their DNA and twisting it around? Is it obvious why legislators feel like there has to be some kind of biological correlate in order to make a disease somehow legitimate?
We're on your side, people. Don't accuse us of wasting government funds by proving the "obvious." If it's so obvious, then I'm in the comments section waiting patiently for a scientific explanation of the precise gene-environment interactions leading up to suicide.