UMass Boston News

Behavioral Epigenetics Takes Center Stage at UMass Boston Conference

DeWayne Lehman | November 12, 2010

A first-of-its-kind international gathering of scholars and researchers to explore the emerging and controversial field of behavioral epigenetics occurred at the University of Massachusetts Boston during a weekend conference on October 29-30. The forum, organized and led by UMass Boston Professor Ed Tronick, included as co-sponsors the New York Academy of Sciences, the Brown University Warren Alpert Medical School, and UMass Boston and its Developmental Sciences Initiative.

Professor Celia Moore welcomed approximately 280 senior researchers, physicians, post-doctoral and clinical fellows, industry scientists, and students working in areas such as neuroscience, pathological embryonic and reproductive development, behavioral sciences, drug addiction, cellular and molecular biology, and drug discovery, and psychotherapists and practicing physicians from 19 countries and many U.S. states.  The participants gathered to share cutting-edge behavioral and molecular research experiences and explore how environmental factors can affect alterations in behavior by biochemically changing, or modulating, the function of genes or gene expression without altering the genetic code. Most remarkably some of these epigenetic changes can be passed on from one generation to another. The aim of the conference, according to Tronick, was to encourage cross-disciplinary discussions among participants, share scientific knowledge, and foster further research and collaborations that will help delineate the emerging field of behavioral epigenetics and foster advancement in our understanding of mechanism shaping epigenetic changes on gene function and expression.

“Epigenetic processes are part of normal development – for example, they occur during cell division, fetal development and over the course of the life span. We now know that single nutrients, toxins, prenatal or postnatal environmental exposures, and even parenting practices can silence or activate a gene without altering its genetic code,” said Tronick, who serves as university distinguished professor of psychology at UMass Boston, chief of the Child Development Unit at Children's Hospital Boston, and lecturer in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. “No longer can we argue over which has a greater impact, genes or the environment. Both are inextricably linked. Environmental events can create biochemical changes that ultimately dictate gene expression, whether at birth or 40 years down the road. In my translational training program on infant mental health for clinical practitioners, we think about epigenetic changes that on one hand may disrupt development and on the other hand may correct derailed development.”

Epigenetic effects have been studied in animal models of depression, addiction, schizophrenia and neuro-developmental disorders. Human studies on epigenetics and behavior are being conducted as well focused on infant behavior and coping with stress. Some psychoactive drugs, such as cocaine or anti-psychotics, also cause changes in some of the co-factors involved in this genetic regulatory system. With an understanding of the molecular mechanisms involved in epigenetic modulation, it might be possible to develop targeted therapies for those individuals in whom it malfunctions.

Tronick, who characterized the conference as highly successful, will publish a paper summarizing the major points addressed during the forum; an early, brief report by one of the attendees is available on the EpiGenie website and the abstracts and materials on the NYAS website. The weekend included a breakfast Think Tank for the speakers.  They held discussions about additional, future forums, and even the possibility of forming a professional association to support and advance the field of behavior epigenetics.

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