How Do Genes Sway the Sensitivity or Resilience of a Child?

Genes can predispose a child to be hypersensitive or resilient like a dandelion.

Posted Jan 20, 2015

For over a decade, scientists including University of Arizona developmental psychologist Bruce Ellis and University of British Columbia developmental pediatrician W. Thomas Boyce have been studying how the human genome influences the temperament of a child. To a large extent, our genes predispose how sensitive each of us is to the stress and stimuli of our childhood environments.

Ellis and Boyce have used science to help explain the Swedish metaphor of amaskrosbarn, a “dandelion child” and orkidebarn, an "orchid child.” New research by Dustin Albert and colleagues at Duke University shows that with proper nurturing even the most vulnerable "orchid" children can grow up to be exceptional if raised in supportive conditions. 

Maya Angelou said famously, “The quality of strength lined with tenderness is an unbeatable combination.” My aim as the father of a 7-year-old is to educate and nurture my daughter to be both resilent like a dandelion while maintaining the sensitivity of an orchid—regardless of what her predetermined genetic temperament might be.

The general consensus behind this metaphor is that a dandelion child can remain healthy and survive in both harsh and hospitable environments but might remain average or unremarkable. Personally, I think dandelions are as exceptional as orchids or any other flower. I'd rather be given a bouquet of dandelions than a dozen red roses any day.

The dandelion might appear to be average from the outside but has the inner strength to burst through a crack in the sidewalk concrete and flourish in hostile environments. The dandelion is, afterall, a weed.

Orchids, on the other hand, require protection and shelter to thrive. However, under the right conditions and with nurturing, when an orchid fully blossoms it is extraordinary. Science has proven that many of the same analogies that hold true in the world of botany also apply to humanity.

If you’d like to watch the lifespan of a dandelion in a short time-lapse video click here. Watching the metamorphosis of this dandelion from flower to seed head reminds me of various stages of human development and the circle of life.

In a breakthrough discovery, Duke University researchers recently identified a specific gene variant linked to “orchid” children who are highly sensitive to their environments and are particularly vulnerable to stress. The genetic marker is part of the glucocorticoid receptor gene NR3C1 that influences the activity of a receptor to which cortisol binds and is directly involved in the stress response.

The January 2015 study, “Can Genetics Predict Response to Complex Behavioral Interventions? Evidence from a Genetic Analysis of the Fast Track Randomized Control Trial,” was published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

This study breaks new ground by identifying that a child’s level of sensitivity to his or her environment is somehow related to specific differences in their genomes.

The study's lead author, Dustin Albert, is a research scientist from the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy. Albert’s current research focuses on the social, genetic, and neurodevelopmental influences on adolescents’ self-regulation and decision making

Albert also studies associations between childhood stress exposure, epigenetic modifications to genes regulating the stress response, and brain structure and function in early adolescence.

In his most recent study Albert et al looked at high-risk first-graders from the Fast Track Project and identified that the children who carried the NR3C1 gene variant were much more likely to develop serious problems in adulthood if they did not receive special support services. 

If left untreated, 75 percent of high-risk "orchid" children with the NR3C1 gene variant went on to develop psychological problems by age 25. These maladaptive behaviors include substance abuse, aggression, and antisocial personality disorder.

The good news is that when children with this gene variant participated in an intensive multi-pronged support services through the Fast Track Project only 18 percent developed psychopathology as adults.

In a press release Albert said, "The findings are a step toward understanding the biology of what makes a child particularly sensitive to positive and negative environments. This gives us an important clue about some of the children who need help the most. It's a hopeful finding ... The children we studied were very susceptible to stress. But far from being doomed, they were instead particularly responsive to help."

One of the most exciting aspects of the evolutionary biology of orchid children is that they are both the most likely to be derailed but also appear genetically wired to be the Crème de la Crème if given proper nurturing and care. The Fast Track results appear to show that orchid children become more resilient through nurturing, loving-kindness, empathy and social connection.

In a lengthy phone conversation with Dustin Albert, he reiterated that children with the NR3CI gene variant appear more likely to develop problems if raised in difficult environments, but also more likely to excel if given the TLC they need. Before the knowledge of the specific gene, Ellis and Boyce reported on this phenomenon in a 2008 paper, “Biological Sensitivity to Context.”

It’s Important to Proceed With Caution In the Genomic Era

Dustin Albert stresses that there are limitations to drawing conclusions from his early research and emphasized the need to proceed with caution as we enter the genomic era. While the Fast Track Project was offered to children of all races, his new findings on NR3C1 were limited to white children identified as European-American.

"That doesn't mean such genetic markers don't exist among children of other races," Albert said. "We simply don't know yet what those markers are." That's one of several important avenues for future research, and he cautions that a thoughtful examination of the ethical issues involved in genetic testing is needed before any of these findings can be translated into policy.

"It would be premature to use this finding to screen children to determine who should receive intervention," Albert concluded. "A lot more work needs to be done before we decide whether or not to make that leap."

The "Sleeper Effect" of Early Interventions Like Fast Track

After our conversation, Dustin Albert sent me another January 2015  Fast Track study, “Impact of Early Intervention on Psychopathology, Crime, and Well-Being at Age 25,” led by his colleague Kenneth Dodge at Duke that was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

The researchers found that by age 25 the Fast Track participants had fewer convictions for violent and drug-related crimes, lower rates of serious substance abuse, lower rates of risky sexual behavior and fewer psychiatric problems than the control group.

In an email exchange about this study Dustin Albert said,

This latter paper shows very strong evidence for the positive effects of the treatment – interestingly, effects are showing up as much stronger in adulthood than they appeared during the school years when the kids were actually receiving the intervention. There’s a kind of “sleeper effect” going on here that I think is fascinating and very important to consider.  We would have concluded that the intervention had rather modest effects if we had stopped following the kids before they reached adulthood.

The positive benefits of the Fast Track intervention were found across the four different regions around the country in both males and females and among both white and African-American children.

When program participants turned 25, researchers reviewed court records and conducted interviews with participants and control group members, as well as individuals who knew the participants well.

“This study adds to the experimental evidence for the important role that environment plays,” Dodge said in a press release. “Genes do not write an inalterable script for a child’s life. And not only does the environment matter greatly in a child’s development, we’ve shown that you can intervene and help that child succeed in life.”

Were You Born More Like a Dandelion or an Orchid?

Would you identify more with being an orchid child or a dandelion child? From a very young age, I was always more sensitive than other boys to the point that I was often called a sissy. I have a hunch that I probably carry the NR3CI gene variant and was born with the temperament of an orchid.

While speaking with Dustin Albert on the phone, I shared my childhood experiences and how incredibly sensitive I was to my environment. Luckily, my mom embraced and nurtured my sensitivity and what some might have labeled as my "femininity." My mom pushed me to explore the world and exposed me to enriched environments. She made it safe to make myself vulnerable because I always felt protected.

Over time, and through athletic training, I developed the resilience of a dandelion while holding on to my orchid-like sensitivity and uniqueness. As an ultraendurance athlete my heightened levels of sensitivity to my internal and external environment made me better at self-regulating my emotional response to pain and stress. 

The nurturing I was given by my parents as a child allowed me to stay emotionally connected and sensitive to the people and environments that surrounded me when I was growing up. This skillset later allowed me to excel and explore uncharted territories in Ironman triathlons and break a Guinness World Record as an adult. As an orchid child who could have self-destructed but instead became "world-class"— I am not an anomaly.

I’d be curious to see what other types of daily lifestyle habits like mindfulness or athletic training might impact the resilience of "orchid" children at an epigenetic level.

Conclusion: Early Interventions to Nurture Our Most Vulnerable Are Worth the Investment

Fast Track interventions may seem costly in the short-run but are highly cost effective in the long-run. According to Kenneth Dodge, "The 10-year intervention costs $58,000 per child. However, that cost should be weighed against the millions of dollars that each chronic criminal costs society in imprisonment and harm to others."

“Prevention takes a considerable investment, but that investment is worth it,” Dodge concluded. “Our policies and practices should reflect the fact that these children can have productive lives.”  

If you’d like to read more about this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Photo Credits: All images from Pixabay (no attribution required.)

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