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Combined, genes and environment affect health more than they do alone

Both nature and nurture -- genetic makeup and the environment experienced through life -- combine to influence health and well-being, Duke University Medical Center researchers and their colleagues have determined in four new studies. The researchers showed that people's genes play a key role in how they respond both biologically and psychologically to stress in their environment.

The researchers presented four studies that examine genetics and the environment on Thursday, March 2, 2006, as part of a symposium organized by Duke researchers at the American Psychosomatic Society annual meeting in Denver. The studies were conducted at Vrije Universiteit in Holland, the Medical College of Georgia and Duke. The studies were funded by the National Institute on Aging and the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.

Two studies from Duke evaluated effects of a particular mutation in the gene that makes monoamine oxidase-A (MAOA-uVNTR), an enzyme responsible for breaking down serotonin as well as other neurotransmitters in the brain. One form of this mutation causes the gene to make more of the enzyme, while the other form results in less production of enzyme. Neurotransmitters are chemical signals by which one neuron triggers a nerve impulse in a neighbor. Thus, neurotransmitters are fundamentally responsible for all brain function, and subtle changes in their level or activity can profoundly affect not only brain function but physiological function influenced by the brain.

"There has been considerable speculation that serotonergic nerves in the brain play an important role in glucose metabolism and obesity," said Richard Surwit, Ph.D., a medical psychologist at Duke who led one of the studies. "Drugs that block serotonergic receptors, such as olanzapine, can produce significant weight gain and diabetes, while drugs that stimulate serotonergic neurons, such as fenfluramine, can induce weight loss and improve metabolism."

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Contact: Tracey Koepke
koepk002@mc.duke.edu
919-660-1301
Duke University Medical Center
3-Mar-2006


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