In Practice

A practicing doctor's views on psychiatry and contemporary culture.

Reassessments

Happily stressed: the latest on the serotonin transporter gene

In September of 2009, I began a review of the science-fiction-based satire Generosity by saying that its author, Richard Powers, was an unlucky man. He had based his book on the premise that one variant of a gene involved in mood modulation, the serotonin transporter gene, offers blanket protection from stress that would otherwise lead to depression. Just as the novel appeared, JAMA published overview research debunking even a mild version that finding.

When my review appeared, I posted a blog here explaining more fully my thoughts on the linkage. I believed that despite the recent refutation, an association between the gene and resilience would eventually emerge. Well, the pendulum has swung. In this month's Archives of General Psychiatry, a group of geneticists, statisticians, and psychiatrists from Wuerzberg, Germany, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, reopen the question of the transporter gene and stress protection. They conclude that a more complex form of the association, one that takes into account resilient responses to early child abuse, holds up. The linkage is not so strong as the original article on the topic had suggested, but it's there, all right, if you look at a larger set of research than the JAMA analysis had considered.

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So: Powers's fiction has its real-world underpinnings once more, albeit in weakened form. Powers was, as I say, unlucky. As for the rest of my tepid take on the novel--reviewers should not need this sort of reassurance, but I confess that I felt more justified on reading James Wood's yet tougher assessment in The New Yorker.

 

Peter D. Kramer is a psychiatrist and author. His books include Against Depression and Listening to Prozac.

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