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Our genes responsible for the way we act?

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New Delhi: As Indians have the issues of intolerance and violence, genetic experts are researching on this hoary discussion, whether Indian genes can influence people towards anti-social behaviour in the society.

Again we are back on the same debate nurture versus nature.

The answer may not be easy to find, but some experts say that the monoamine oxidase A or MAOA gene involved the parameter of emotions and behaviour and can predispose certain humans towards anti-social behaviour if they have had adverse childhood experiences.

Many studies in the past have linked genes with offensive behaviour, but the fallouts have often been unpredictable. Recently a study by researchers in Montreal, Canada, though, found that genetics may indeed play a key role in violent behaviour.

The team from the University of Montreal found that certain polymorphism (change of form) of MAOA gene may disrupt the regulation of emotions and behavioural inhibition in the brain.

“The study found that men with a less frequent variant of the MAOA gene (approximately 30 percent of them) were at a higher risk of exhibiting anti-social behaviour in adolescence and in early adulthood compared to those without this variant, but who also have been exposed to violence as children,” informs Dr Manish Jain, senior consultant (psychiatrist) from BLK Super Speciality Hospital in the capital.

“It implies that even when exposed to the same environment some may develop anti-social traits based on their genetics while others may not,” Dr Jain told reporters.

According to Dr Sameer Malhotra, director (mental health and behavioural sciences) at Max Super Specialty Hospital, genes and environment live the individual lives both effects the personality profile of an individual.

So are we any nearer to a clear-cut answer?

“Through genes, one inherits vulnerability factor. Environmental factors in conjunction with the vulnerability can influence behaviour. Anti-social behaviour is linked to conduct disorder in childhood. At times, association with family history of alcoholism or drug abuse and aggression are also observed,” Dr Malhotra said.

“High levels of neurotransmitter dopamine that is involved in the regulation of emotions and problems in the frontal brain cortex are also reported in such people,” he adds.

Other experts feel that people who are victims themselves or have witnessed violence in childhood are more likely to have anti-social tendencies as teenagers and adults.

“The impact on personality would depend on overall environment and positive experiences and the resolution of past experiences, but statically, this statement would be correct that there would be more chances of aggressive tendencies in the absence of support and intervention,” explains Dr Samir Parikh, director, department of mental health and behavioural sciences, Fortis Healthcare.

“There are many social psychological factors which have a significant impact and to say what percentage would be genes would still need more research, though,” he adds.

Dr JC Barnes who is a criminologist from the University of Texas at Dallas found that genes can be a strong predictor of whether someone strays into a life of crime.

The research mainly focusses on whether genes are likely to cause a person to become a life-course persistent offender, which is characterised by anti-social behaviour during childhood that may later progress to violent or serious criminal acts.

“The overarching conclusions were that genetic influences in life-course persistent offending were larger than environmental influences,” says Dr Barnes.

Crime is learned, there is no specific behaviour for it. “But there are likely to be hundreds, if not thousands, of genes that will incrementally increase your likelihood of being involved in a crime even if it only ratchets that probability by one percent,” he points out. “It still is a genetic effect. And it’s still important.”

Although research has not concluded genetic basis for antisocial tendencies, the influence of genetics and environment cannot be ignored.

“The child’s initial behaviours and learning are moulded through parenting and family interaction. The temperament with which the child is born along with parenting behaviour styles influence one another,” explains Dr Shobhana Mittal, consultant psychiatrist at Cosmos Institute of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences in New Delhi.

Children from broken homes, single parents or from families where there is substance abuse, physical, verbal, emotional or sexual abuse tend to have poor family bonding. Disrupted family atmospheres affect the overall emotional health of the child as well as contribute to the child’s personality and coping abilities.

“With immature coping skills, children at times do not understand how to manage anger, frustration resulting in anger outbursts or aggressive behaviour. This further makes the child vulnerable to external influence from their peers,” elaborates Dr Sunil Mittal, director of Cosmos Institute of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences (CIMBS), in New Delhi.

“A recent genetic analysis of almost 900 offenders in Finland revealed two genes associated with violent repeat offenders were the MAOA gene and a variant of cadherin 13 (CDH13) gene. Those with these genes were 13 times more likely to have a history of repeated violent behaviour,” Dr Jain told reporters.

Although the role of genes cannot be ignored anymore, the jury may still be out on a definite answer.

But as the experts point out, if a lethal gene is lurking there somewhere, it may make a person a little more prone to act out the bad experiences in life. (IANS)

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Smartphones Using Artificial Intelligence Can Predict User’s Mental Well-Being

At the University of Illinois' Chicago campus, researchers are using crowdsourcing to test their experimental phone app.

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Students, smartphones
Students walk across a campus in Portland, Oregon. VOA

Could the devices being blamed for teen depression be useful in revealing it?

Studies have linked heavy smartphone use with worsening teen mental health. But as teens spend time on sites like Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube, they also leave digital trails that may offer signs about their mental well-being.

Experts say possible warning signs include changes in writing speed, voice quality, word choice and how often a student stays home from school.

There are more than 1,000 smartphone “biomarkers,” said Dr. Thomas Insel, former head of the National Institute of Mental Health, which is the largest mental health research organization in the world. Insel is a leader in the smartphone psychiatry movement.

Snapchat, smartphones
An image of the Snapchat logo created with Post-it notes is seen in lower Manhattan, New York, May 18, 2016. VOA

Researchers are testing smartphone apps that use artificial intelligence, or AI, to predict depression and possible self-harm. Using smartphones as mental health detectors require permission from users to download an app, and permission could be revoked any time.

Nick Allen, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, has created an app being tested on young people who have attempted suicide. Allen says the biggest barrier is discerning the mental health crisis signals in the information on people’s phones.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 34 in the United States. By 2015, suicide rates among teen boys rose to 14 in every 100,000 and five in every 100,000 people, among girls. A recent study suggested a rise in smartphone use has probably worsened the crisis.

People with mental illness, Insel said, usually get treatment “when they’re in crisis and very late. … We want to have a method to identify the earliest signs.”

Smartphones
iPhones on display at an Apple store in Virginia, USA, April 4, 2016. VOA

If smartphones can become effective predictors, app developers say the goal might be to offer automated text messages and links to assistance, or digital messages to parents, doctors and first responders.

Facebook employs “proactive detection.” Last year, after a suicide was broadcast on Facebook Live, the company trained its AI systems to look for words in online posts that could predict possible self-harm. Friends’ comments expressing concern about the user’s well-being are part of that detection system.

Facebook has helped first responders quickly reach around 3,500 people in the past year. But the company did not offer followup details on those people.

Ongoing research includes a Stanford University study of about 200 teens. Many of them are at risk for depression because of bullying, family issues or other problems. Teens who have been studied since grade school get an experimental phone app that asks them questions about their mood three times a day for two weeks.

Students, smartphones
In this Feb. 26, 2015, file photo, a UCLA campus tour guide leads prospective college-bound high school seniors on a campus tour in Los Angeles. VOA

Laurel Foster, 15, is part of the study. Foster said she is stressed about school and friendships. Depression is common at her San Francisco high school, she said. The smartphone app felt a little like being spied on, she said, but many websites are already following users’ behaviors.

Alyssa Lizarraga, 19, is also part of the study. Lizarraga said she has had depression since high school, and worries about her heavy use of smartphones and social media. She said comparing herself with others online sometimes causes her sadness. But she believes using smartphones to identify mental health problems might help push people to seek early treatment.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, researchers offer online counseling and an experimental phone app to students who show signs of at least minor depression on a test. It is part of a larger effort launched in 2017 by the university to battle depression in its students. About 250 UCLA students agreed to use the app during their first year.

Also Read: Depression In Girls Linked To Higher Use Of Social Media: Study

At the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus, researchers are using crowdsourcing to test their experimental phone app. Nearly 2,000 people have downloaded the app and agreed to let researchers follow typing behaviors. Alex Leow, a professor of psychiatry and bioengineering at the university, helped develop the app.

The study is for people 18 and older, but Leow said it could also be used for children if successful.

Along with studies at universities, technology companies such as Mindstrong and Verily — the tech health division of Google — are testing their own experimental apps. (VOA)