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George Slavich publishes paper on human social genomics

16.04.2013 10:32

Society in Science – Branco Weiss fellow Dr. George Slavich has published a new article on the exciting new field of research that he and his co-author, Dr. Steven Cole, are calling “human social genomics.”Central to the article is the idea that although we generally experience our bodies as being biologically stable across time, evidence has emerged demonstrating that changes in the expression of hundreds of genes can occur as a result of the social environments we inhabit. As a result of these dynamics, experiences we have today can affect our health for days and even months into the future. The article, titled “The Emerging Field of Human Social Genomics,”is published in Clinical Psychological Science and can be downloaded from Dr. Slavich’s laboratory website.

In the paper, Drs. Slavich and Cole assert that certain genes can be “turned on”and “turned off”by different social-environmental conditions ”€ especially our subjective perceptions of those conditions. To substantiate this phenomenon, they point to a number of studies that have connected external conditions to our genomic profiles. For example, in 2007 Dr. Cole found that, compared to socially connected individuals, people who experience chronic social isolation show reduced antiviral immune response gene activity, which leaves them vulnerable to viral infections like the common cold. These individuals also showed increased expression of genes involved in inflammation, which underlies the progression of chronic diseases like metabolic syndrome, heart disease, certain cancers, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Other social conditions that have been found to influence human gene expression include being socially evaluated or rejected, which can have different consequences for different people depending on their sensitivity to social threat.

Drs. Slavich and Cole also point to social influences that may regulate gene expression at a collective group level. This suggests, they say, the existence of a metagenome, wherein the activity of one person’s genome is influenced by the genomic activity of surrounding individuals.

In their article, Drs. Slavich and Cole acknowledge that they focused on gene programs involved in innate immunity. They call for more research on other types of genes, as well as other social factors that may regulate human gene expression, such as culture, social attachment, prejudice, and social hierarchies.

Dr. Slavich is an assistant professor and Society in Science – Branco Weiss fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA. He is also a Research Scientist at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, where he directs the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research.

Dr. Cole is a professor in the Departments of Medicine and Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and a Research Scientist at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology.