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September 2010



By Joyce Parker
Taken from: A Question of Resilience, by Emily Bazelon
New York Times Magazine, April 30, 2006

Resilience is about overcoming adversity so that one does not experience the most serious effects of such traumas as abuse, war, or natural disasters. So how can we explain the miraculous recovery of the deer in Dr. McArthur’s article of the month? Ann Masten, a resilience researcher has described resilience as “ordinary magic.” The latest research indicates that resilience is an interaction between particular genes and the environment. This is described as GxE, genetics plus environment.  Researchers have found that a particular variation of a gene can act as a buffer against serious adversity. But if there are no environmental problems the gene doesn’t express itself in this way.  Terri Moffet, a researcher on the faculty of Rutter’s research center at the Institute of Psychiatry in London and the University of Wisconsin, published a paper in Science that described the relationship between the gene, 5-HTT and childhood maltreatment in causing depression. 5-HTT helps to regulate the serotonin in the brain.  Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that regulates mood and promotes a feeling of wellbeing.  This gene has two alleles that occur in a long and short version. People with at least one short 5-HTT allele are more prone to depression. In the research, children with two short alleles had serious emotional difficulties when their environment was abusive or there was some form of trauma in their lives.  Children with one short and one long allele fared better and children with two long alleles were the most resilient to adversity. However if there were no serious environmental problems, children with short alleles did as well as children with long alleles.

When Joan Kaufman, a Yale psychiatry researcher, looked deeper into the environmental influences that protected children from the consequences of abuse, she found that there were significant differences in the support these children received from other adults in their lives. She asked the children to name the person they could most often count on for emotional and other types of support. Those children who had two short alleles and rarely saw the adults they named had very high depression scores. But those children with 2 short alleles who saw their supportive adults on a daily or almost daily basis, had depression scores that were very close to those children who had two long protective alleles and were also close to those children who had not been abused.  She states, “Good support ameliorates the effect of abuse and of the high risk genotype.”

Thus when our deer in Dr. McArthur’s article was struck by the car and went into shock, we may be able to explain her miraculous recovery. It was the caring and supportive human who had the compassion to stroke the animal and give it some comfort that may have saved the animal. Children who are resilient may have certain genes that help them deal with their problems but those genes do not work alone. It takes a supportive relationship with a caring person to ameliorate the effects of an adverse environment.

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