The social psychology of epigenetics: as understood in stress, inflammation and disease models of health

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bath
Department Name: Psychology

Abstract

Epigenetic refers to a layer of additional regulatory information over and above the genetic information conferred by the DNA sequence. This regulatory information, collectively called the epigenome, affects gene expression, replication and repair. The epigenome enables the genome to respond to the environment and has been described as the crucial link by which the experience of environmental stressors can lead to adverse health outcomes, including cancer, depression, diabetes, Alzheimer's and heart disease. Current research indicates that stressors can facilitate disease by promoting expression of pro-inflammatory genes, producing systemic inflammation. Stress-induced epigenetic changes can be long lasting and possibly heritable. However, such changes are also potentially reversible and an emerging literature suggests that health-protective behaviours (e.g. physical activity and meditation) can counteract negative epigenetic and health outcomes by down-regulating expression of pro-inflammatory genes.

Epigenetics is a rapidly growing field, with research increasingly communicated to the public. Scientists in the fields of environmental epigenetics and the developmental origins of health and disease are keen to communicate epigenetic findings in a way that promotes engagement in healthy behaviours and discussion of implications for public health. Concerns have been raised, however, that present communications may not deliver these benefits and may instead promote social and ethical harms, such as discrimination, blame and fatalism.

Social psychology has previously found that the way in which health issues are framed can predict health-relevant attitudes and behaviours. The present research will explore the communication of epigenetics in health research to the public and examine the impact of this communication. The project will be mixed-methods, utilising both quantitative and qualitative methodology in order to investigate the research questions. It is hoped that this work will provide insight into the social and psychological implications of epigenetics in health education and behaviour change, and in so doing help to determine whether this is a suitable approach for future policy or clinical use.

Publications

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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2124112 Studentship ES/P000630/1 05/11/2018 04/11/2021 Marike Sophie Fordonnell