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How do Parent’s Genes Shape Behavior of Children?

Scientists at the University of Utah have explained how genes from both parents influence behavior of children. The findings were published in the journal ‘Cell Reports‘.

Parenting isn’t the only way parents influence their children’s behavior. Genes are also important. And, while most of our genes are inherited in pairs, one copy from each parent, moms and dads have different genetic influences.

“We’re very interested in the fact that there is this untapped area of biology that controls our decisions,” said Christopher Gregg, PhD, principal investigator and associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology.

He believes that gaining a better understanding of the genetic factors that influence behavior is a critical step toward developing better diagnoses and treatments for psychiatric disorders.

Gregg’s team reports that certain groups of cells in mice brains rely solely on the mother’s copy of a gene required to produce essential chemical messengers in the brain known as neurotransmitters.

The father’s copy of the gene is still turned off in those cells. Certain cells in a different organ, the adrenal gland, however, prefer the father’s copy of the same gene. The gene is involved in the production of the stress hormone adrenaline.

Following the discovery of this unexpected shift in parental control of a single gene, Gregg’s team went on to show that it had behavioral consequences, discovering that each parent’s gene affected sons and daughters differently: certain decisions in sons were controlled by their mother’s gene, whereas fathers had control over some decision-making in daughters.

According to Gregg, this type of genetic regulation may reflect different parental priorities. “Not everyone has the same interests, outcomes, and selective effects,” he said.

“Daughters must raise litters. Sons frequently disperse and relocate to new environments.” As a result, it may be in parents’ best interests to influence their sons and daughters’ behavior differently.

“The discovery that maternal and paternal alleles of the same gene along the brain-adrenal axis can have disparate, or even antagonistic, phenotypic consequences on behavior is an intriguing observation,” said Paul Bonthuis, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Comparative Biosciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“The brain-adrenal axis is a critical component of mammalian biology that regulates behavior and influences stress, mood, metabolism, and decision-making,” Gregg said.

This discovery, he says, is a first step toward understanding how a parent’s genes may influence more routine behaviors and related health conditions in people, ranging from mental illnesses and addiction to cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

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